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Director Ian White and French actor Nicolas Berthery shooting an action scene
Director Ian White and French actor Nicolas Berthery shooting an action scene Eli Meixler

Love in the time of the Khmer Rouge

Noir thriller depicts a doomed romance played out in the final days before the fall of Phnom Penh

On the third floor of Phnom Penh’s derelict old colonial police station this week, two men wielding pistols and dressed in green fatigues – a Cambodian with a black patch over one eye and a tall, wild-haired Frenchman – stalked each other amid the rubble.

By the end of the action, a scene being filmed for upcoming period film Before the Fall, one of the men lay dead on the tiles while the other had escaped with a valuable prize.

“This scene is the very centrepiece of the film; a cat and mouse chase through the building with both men after a bag full of cash,” said the film’s stocky Australian director, Ian White, between takes.

Set in the chaotic last days before the Khmer Rouge overran Phnom Penh in April 1975, the noir thriller tells the story of a love triangle between a Cambodian nightclub singer, a French combat photographer and an American entrepreneur.

“It’s a bit like Casablanca with a psychedelic visual and Cambodian rock ’n’ roll soundtrack,” White said with a grin.

The noir thriller – set to hit theatres in the 40th anniversary year of the fall of Phnom Penh – is a co-production of Kith Tieng’s Rock Productions, part of the Royal Group, and a Singaporean film distributor, Silver Media Group, which has affiliates able to take the film to Europe and North America.

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White goes over some notes with actors Pauline Cammal and Ian Virgo Eli Meixler

White declined to reveal the film’s budget, but said it was large by Cambodian standards.

The filmmaker said that while writing the script, he looked to enduring stories that held up over time, like Casablanca and James Cameron’s more recent blockbuster love story, Titanic. “Both of those films are points of inspiration,” he said. “I guess you could say that in my film, the Khmer Rouge is the iceberg.”

All three main characters are being played by relative unknowns: French model Nicolas Berthery, who is only starting to embark on an acting career; American Ian Virgo, who was in the Hollywood film Black Hawk Down but has primarily worked in TV on series such as The Bill, EastEnders and Casualty; and first-time Cambodian actress Pauline Cammal.

Berthery, 31, said he found much in the role that he could relate to in his own life – his father was a journalist and his mother is half Vietnamese. She emigrated to France when she was 6.

But he also did a lot of research – reading about Cambodia’s history from the ’50s to the ’80s and watching documentaries about war photographers – before shooting started, so he could more effectively wear the skin of his character. He said he based his character on fearless combat snappers like Sean Flynn and Tim Page.

But the biggest challenge with the role was taking on a war photographer’s “physicality and animality”. “[The way they are] in the field, to jump everywhere but be really smooth about the way you shoot, move and walk,” he said.

Cammal - who grew up in Phnom Penh, France and Canada – had no professional acting experience before being cast in the film, just high school theatre, but said she couldn’t ask for a better way to get into movies. “I guess it’s just like being on your first day of work, with butterflies in your stomach,” she said. “But the crew are so nice, always making sure I’m comfortable and helping me get my lines right. They’re a great team to work with.”

Before the Fall is Cammal’s first professional acting role
Before the Fall is Cammal’s first professional acting role Eli Meixler

The 22-year-old described her character – torn between two lovers – as being “like a chicken wishbone about to be snapped in two”.

Cammal said she used this emotional hook as a way of getting into the role.

“Everyone’s been through love triangles, like, I have been in so many love triangles before, so I found that easy to relate to,” she said. “I’m also used to being surrounded by men – by alpha males – mostly because I’m the only girl in my family.”

She added that she was enjoying the musical aspect of the film: the soundtrack has been recorded by the Cambodian Space Project.

“I grew up on Cambodian rock,” she said. “My mum was a huge fan and was always listening to Ros Sereysothea, Pen Ron and the rest.”

When asked to contribute, the Cambodian Space Project’s Julien Poulson and Kak Chanthy wrote a series of songs inspired by the script, which they recorded in France with guest musicans from the French band Mac Abbe Zombie.

The sessions were engineered by legendary Detroit producer Jim Diamond, who has worked with The White Stripes and The Dirt Bombs.

Poulson describes the resulting album, Electric Blue Boogaloo, as the “juke box for an imagined GIs’ R ’n’ R bar in pre-apocalyptic Cambodia”.

“I told [Chanthy] the story of the film, and we selected tracks that might fit – new and old,” he said. Chanthy “wrote some powerful lyrics and songs – from the haunting to the hilarious and the whole shebang was wrapped up pretty quickly”.

“It’s our best work to date,” he added.

Cambodian actor Hun Sophy has a rest between takes
Cambodian actor Hun Sophy has a rest between takes Eli Meixler

White said: “The music of the era really is a cornerstone of the film.”

Another unique aspect of the film is the look of the city itself, although locations in Phnom Penh that retain that look from the early ’70s are difficult to find these days.

Many scenes are being shot in a big warehouse in Takhmao where different sets can be manufactured. Others have been shot at the Latin Quarter, in Tonle Bassac district and at The Rock nightclub on Monivong Boulevard, which was completely transformed to give it a retro look.

White said the former colonial police station – located across the road from Phnom Penh’s Post Office and surrounded by green metal hoarding and owned by the Royal Group – was a dream set.

“The building is fantastic; the texture and light is just beautiful,” he said “Wherever you look is just gorgeous.”

While good locations for shooting may have been easier to find in the past, White said good crew members were much more available nowadays as local skills improve.

The Cambodians working on the film came from all parts of the industry – cutting their teeth on TV commercials, karaoke videos, TV series, short films and features produced both by local and international production companies.

White – who has been based in Southeast Asia for more than 20 years and is best known for his social issues documentaries – said that each production in the Kingdom raised the bar by increments.

“The filmmaking culture in Cambodia these days is fantastic,” he said. “It’s relatively cheap to make films here, and lots of people are doing it – there are a lot of small projects going on – so there’s a great filmmaking community.”

Cedric Eloy, the chief executive of the Cambodian Film Commission, said few fictional films had covered the Khmer Rouge era.

“There is a lot of interest in that time at the moment,” he said. “Any cultural productions that can document this period and make people outside and inside Cambodia more aware is very positive, I think.”

White said Before the Fall should be completed in the first quarter of next year.

“It wasn’t planned with the anniversary in mind,” he said. “When we started looking at doing the film last year, we thought it would take a lot longer. It’s just a coincidence.”

He added that he hoped the film would be a success and pave the way for more to be made for the international market.

“Cambodia has a great film tradition, and it’s really rewarding to be part of a revival,” he said.

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