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A well-spun real-life tale of a gangster gone good

The real-life morality tale of Kosal Khiev’s imprisonment and redemption has been masterly told in a production that is cause for both heartbreak and optimism.

Kosal, who turned to poetry during his 14 years behind bars in California for attempted murder, agreed to have filmmaker and mentor Masahiro Sugano record his new life in Cambodia a year after being deported from the US.

Kosal’s complex character would make fiction writers jealous. As a repentant ex-gang member who was locked up from his mid-teens until his early 30s, the audience gets to see Kosal adjust not only to his new nationality but freedom itself.

Though he never fails to elicit sympathy from the audience through his kind and honest disposition, Kosal is, in his own words, “not always the best person to be around” as he struggles to be a responsible adult.

It is through relatively mundane setbacks, such as his abandonment of his volunteer job at a local art school and his stubborn refusal to work under a boss at one point, that Kosal’s post-prison life becomes relatable.

The film reaches its emotional peak when Kosal is reunited with his father, who was separated from the family in the Thai refugee camps. Upon travelling to his father’s restaurant in rural France, Sugano captured Kosal’s first embrace with his dad in 32 years in a moment of raw emotion most videographers only dream about catching on film.

The film ends on a note of both positivity and sadness. While Kosal is shown to have matured as both an artist and human, other deportees have gone wayward. The viewer is also reminded that US Immigration and Customs Enforcement still deports dozens of Cambodian-Americans each year who have known no home outside America.

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