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A funeral gets under way during shooting for The Uninvited. Photo supplied/ Amit Dubey

Horror in the shadow of Bokor Mountain

Italian filmmaker hopes his new big-budget thriller will scare and delight in and outside the Kingdom

On Monday morning, inside a circle of rude grass huts, about 30 men and women wearing purple sampot stood around an unlit “funeral pyre”. A voice yelled “action” and a large man – the only one wearing a shirt – plunged a flaming torch into the dry sticks and wood.

So went the opening scene of Italian filmmaker Jimmy Henderson’s The Uninvited, a new big-budget period horror-thriller currently being shot in the shadow of Bokor Mountain in Kampot province with an almost entirely Cambodian cast and crew.

The film is also being produced with Cambodian money – about $200,000 of it – provided by the Royal Group’s entertainment arm, Rock Production. In Cambodian terms, that’s a lot for a film. The comedies and ghost stories normally produced for local audiences usually have budgets a tenth of that.

Henderson said his first feature, Hanuman, a bokator martial arts film backed by Westec Media and released earlier this year, was made “for nothing” and the bigger budget for The Uninvited would allow him to be more creative.

“[The Uninvited] is much bigger than Hanuman,” Henderson said this week during an interview in Kampot. “This allowed me to get camera lenses that, if you buy them, cost $200,000 on their own, to build a whole village, and to have 70 people working for me and put them all up in a guesthouse for the 24-day shoot. It’s an expensive movie.” 

“Money is very important in filmmaking, if you use it right. If someone gives you $10,000 to make a film, you think about making a $10,000 movie. That means you can get as creative as possible but you still have limitations. 

“If a person gives you $1 million, you can still make the idea for $10,000 but expand it way wider. Money is creativity at the end of the day.”

Set in the 1900s, The Uninvited centres on an isolated unnamed Cambodian village where a run of bad weather has left the residents on the verge of starvation – despite the fact that a thriving city is located on the other side of the nearby mountain.  

“The village is led by a hardliner commune chief who doesn’t allow his villagers to leave to the city,” Henderson said. “But one day, a mute woman [the personification of nature] appears in the village, and from then on, things will get nasty.”

“It’s like a fable, a twisted fable,” he added.

The film features bizarre dream sequences, rape, insect plagues, a scene where the commune chief digs up his dead wife, and many, many horrific deaths including a cow that’s slaughtered on screen.

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Filmmaker Jimmy Henderson directs a scene. Photo supplied/ Amit Dubey

“The only thing I regret about making Hanuman is holding back,” Henderson said. “In Hanuman, I could have pushed more. I had too much of this pressure to make it for a local audience, so I compromised on certain things. On this, I’m not compromising, in regards to nudity or surreal elements or anything.”

Making The Uninvited was part of a deliberate strategy by Rock Production to move into bigger budget productions targeted at the international market, said the company’s project director and assistant chef executive, Ly Meng.

Founded in 2003 to make dramas for the Royal Group’s television station CTN, Rock Production – which also owns ancillary businesses like Monivong Boulevard’s massive Rock nightclub, casinos and marketing facilities – had in the past produced more than 10 low-budget comedy and ghost features for local cinemas, Meng said.

However, the most cinema tickets a local film could hope to sell was about 50,000, and with cinema owners demanding more than 50 per cent of ticket sales, the potential profit for film studios was extremely limited.

Making films for an international market would greatly expand the potential audience and profit margins, Meng said.

“We also want international audiences to know about Cambodian culture and history,” he added.

So in 2013, chairman and founder Kith Thieng (brother of Royal Group founder and Kith Meng) gave the green light to Before the Fall, a noir thriller set in the days leading up to the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge with a budget of about $800,000 that’s set to be released later this year, and then last year Henderson got the go-ahead for The Uninvited.

Meng conceded that spending so much on films was risky.

“If our international-style films don’t make money we might have to consider stopping like we stopped with song production before,” he said. “We are just trying something new to test the market and see if we can make money. If we cannot, we will stop.”

However, Henderson, who also worked on Before the Fall, is confident that The Uninvited will be a success.

“They’re taking a risk with Before the Fall and with me, but I always feel if someone gives you responsibility and trust to do something then I’m giving them everything I have to make this work,” he said.

Back at the shoot near Kampot on Monday, the pyre exploded into flames – helped along by a little diesel from the props department. Sitting on a crane, Henderson and his expensive camera were lifted high above the scene, shooting the flames and villagers before swinging up, up and around to face the looming Bokor mountain and the clouds behind.

The director was happy as he dismounted. 

“That’s the opening scene done,” he said, grinning. “It’s epic.”

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