Upcoming historical action flick Preah Sdech Kan will be the most expensive Cambodian movie ever made. But who is its 16th-century hero, and why is Hun Sen so fixated on his life?
On a sandy wasteland on the Chroy Changvar peninsula, north of Phnom Penh, a shirtless hero wielding a thick wooden cudgel spars with acrobatic assailants armed with theatrical swords.
The 36-year-old is a champion bodybuilder and personal trainer by trade, and looks barely flustered by the afternoon’s exertion.
But for the next few months, he will assume another persona: the role of 16th-century ruler Sdech Kan (also known as Sdech Korn). With a budget of about $1 million, the film in which he is soon to star will be the most expensive Cambodian film ever made.
Sophorn – who was once cast in the role of a king in a documentary about the Angkorian empire after sending a photo instead of attending a casting call – is coolly excited to take on the lead role.
With biceps and pectoral muscles reminiscent of Bokor Mountain, a smile as sweet as romduol flowers and a jaw that looks like it was carved from the sturdy stone of Angkor, the relatively inexperienced actor fits the archetype of the historic hero to perfection.
He said he had never previously heard of Sdech Kan, but was nonetheless proud to take on the role.
“It is difficult to describe what I like about this film, but I am very proud to be the main actor,” he said, speaking as the sunset brought the day’s rehearsals to a picturesque close.
A battle for history Away from the rehearsal set, the portrayal of Sdech Kan as “hero” is a heated issue, half a millennium after his death. With scarce historical facts available, the tale of the “Peasant King” – a commoner who ascended to the throne through force – changes with the telling.
For some, the king is a hero and pioneer of equality – the persona Sophorn assumes in this million-dollar reimagining. For others, the hunky lead should by rights be playing a villain: a usurper who meets a fitting end when he is ultimately overthrown and beheaded.
As Sebastian Strangio writes in his recent book Hun Sen’s Cambodia, “Historically, [Sdech Kan] has been treated as a cautionary tale — an example of the dangers that can follow the usurpation of the natural social order.”
But recently the tale has been revived in a new light, thanks to one politician fascinated by the story of the 16th-century king: Hun Sen.
The Cambodian premier is something of a Sdech Kan scholar: he funded research into the location of the king’s ancient capital, and backed a flurry of tourism developments around the site. In 2006, he financed and wrote the foreword for a book on Sdech Kan by Professor Ros Chantrabot, deputy president of the Royal Academy of Cambodia.
Hun Sen has often drawn parallels between himself and Kan in his speeches, referring to the fact they were both born in the year of the dragon and their shared connection to Kampong Cham.
It’s a fascination that attentive CPP oligarchs have not failed to note – and exploit.
Numerous statues of Sdech Kan that bear more than a passing resemblance to the prime minister have been erected around Cambodia, commissioned by tycoons seeking to curry favour.
The National Bank of Cambodia has issued commemorative coins modelled after the currency that Kan created, while Hun Sen’s bodyguards have even staged theatrical dramatisations of the story.
Strangio observes: “In recent years, the story has been revived by a new official cult extolling Kan’s achievements and linking them with Prime Minister Hun Sen, who, by subtle implication, is presented as the reincarnation of the lost king.”
According to Swedish academic Astrid Norén-Nilsson – author of the forthcoming book Cambodia’s Second Kingdom: Nation, Imagination and Democracy – Hun Sen has been playing up the parallels since 2000.
No parallel intended
Writing in an email, she said that a “set of similarities” shared by the two rulers – the shared birth year and time spent in lowly roles in temples or pagodas before their rise to power – meant that “an interpretation of the historical context of Sdech Kan can readily be transposed onto present-day Cambodia”.
Speaking at the rehearsal, assistant director Hout Sithan denied that there was any intended parallel between Ros Sophorn’s muscled hero and Hun Sen, and that the prime minister was not involved with directing or financing the film.
The prime minister did not actively support the film, Sithan said, because it was about a commoner dethroning a king, which could be seen to be disrespecting Cambodia’s current monarchy.
“If [Hun Sen] was involved, people might get confused and think that he made his own history,” he said.
Instead, the film was the brainchild of a tycoon close to Hun Sen, who Sithan refused to name.
But Sithan said that despite the presence of an illustrious backer, funding had made the project hard to get off the ground. “Before, we wanted to film it with Hang Meas TV but there was not enough money,” he said.
“It will cost $1 million to make this film with a cast of 300.
“If [Hun Sen] was involved, this film would have already been made a long time ago,” he pointed out.
Now, Sithan said, the funding shortfall had been met by tycoon and ruling party Senator Ly Yong Phat, the so-called “King of Koh Kong” who has been accused at various points of land grabbing and employing child labour on his plantations. The costumes and sets are being provided by the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts.
Mao Ayuth, a secretary of state with the Ministry of Information who wrote the script and is now the driving force behind the film, will direct. Ayuth asked Post Weekend to direct questions to Sithan, while Ly Yong Phat could not be reached for comment.
Sithun said the film would be shot over five or six months in different provinces. “I think we will finish everything and screen at the beginning of 2017,” Sithan said.
For Sithan, whose previous work includes a Thai-produced documentary about the Angkorian empire, the appeal of Sdech Kan’s story was his status as a revolutionary fighter for equality.
He said the producers would try to make the film as historically accurate as possible while still making it entertaining and taking into account the lack of documentation of the period.
A contested legacy
Whether or not Sithan’s film is part of Hun Sen’s sphere of influence, it seems clear that the premier would appreciate the producers' heroic, audience-friendly version of the king’s story.
As Norén-Nilsson explained via email, the prime minister was “fond” of the Sdech Kan story because it conveyed certain key messages: the potential for social mobility, and the triumph of men with moral virtue.
She said that Hun Sen himself had written of these notions in his foreword to the book on the historical figure: “Hun Sen writes that Kan was the originator of two conceptual innovations: freedom rights (setthi seripheap) and class struggle (tâsou vannah).
These radical innovations were said to have predated the emergence of similar notions in Europe, making Cambodia the birthplace of democracy in the world.
“Hun Sen notes these achievements of Sdech Kan as points for his own political vision, and thereby implies that these two concepts also provide a blueprint for contemporary politics.”
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy, unsurprisingly views the Sdech Kan tale in a different light, calling him a usurper who assassinated a legitimate king.
In 1508, King Srey Sukonthor dreamed that a fire-breathing dragon drove him from his palace and wreaked havoc on the kingdom. Not long afterwards, he had a second dream in which two dragons circled the head of one of his military commanders, Kan. Kan was a member of the temple-slave class and his sister was a part of Sukonthor’s harem. Hearing portents of doom from all corners of the kingdom and his fortune-tellers, who said he would be overthrown by a man born in the year of the dragon like Kan, Sukonthor ordered Kan killed. After overhearing the plan, his sister warned Kan, who fled east and raised an army. He marched back in 1512 and took power for himself after Sukonthor was struck down by one of his aides, and took the royal name Srey Chetha. During his reign he introduced the first Cambodian currency, the sloeung, a gold coin inscribed with a scaled dragon, and ruled benevolently; however, after only four years, Sokunthor’s brother Chan Reachea returned from Ayutthaya with Thai troops and started a war that lasted nearly 10 years. In 1525, Kan was captured and beheaded by Reachea, who took the throne.
“Subsequently, the usurper did nothing good for Cambodia,” Rainsy said via email. “It was Preah Srei Sokunbot’s younger brother who, after a long struggle, finally defeated and killed Sdech Kan (Korn) and acceded to the throne under the name of Preah Chan Reachea.
“Preah Chan Reachea was a great King considered as a national hero who confronted foreign invaders on several occasions and, towards the end of his reign, liberated several Cambodian provinces from the Siamese (Siam was the precursor of Thailand). Whoever wants to be compared to Sdech Kan (Korn) must be a little bit insane.”
Rainsy said he welcomed any production that would “illustrate any part of Cambodia’s history for the education of our new generations”.
“But I have doubt on the relevancy of any piece that could entail a distortion of historical facts because the intention of its sponsors would be related to the megalomania of a political leader inspired by political calculation and manipulation.”
As for Ros Sophorn, the machinations of Cambodian politicians weighing their legacies are a world away from the dusty area where he practises with the more experienced martial artists. The actor’s only worries, he says, are remembering his lines and perfecting martial arts moves.
He has no doubt that he is playing the role of an ancient hero, and that audiences will feel the same way when they see the film next year: “Everyone likes my character,” he says with a confident smile.