Cambodian heist comedy lifts the spirits

Leya (Som Maleak) and Sovan (Vandy Piseth).
Leya (Som Maleak) and Sovan (Vandy Piseth). PHOTO SUPPLIED

Cambodian heist comedy lifts the spirits

Sometimes all you need to lift your spirits is a karaoke-singing police chief with a penchant for Elvis suits. Thankfully, director Sok Visal’s first feature film is just the ticket. Gems on the Run (Kroab Pich) premiered at the Cambodian International Film Festival in December and is currently in cinemas.

This heist comedy tells the story of two childhood friends, Rith and Sovan, who are reunited as adults. Over the course of 15 years, their lives have taken very different turns: Rith (played by Cheky Athiporn), the son of Phnom Penh’s police chief, has become a cop himself, though he spends more time dressing in lavish suits and singing along to karaoke than enforcing the law. Meanwhile Sovan (Vandy Piseth), hardened by a childhood in an orphanage and on the streets, is tiring of violent gang life and, when he falls upon three gems worth $3 million, sees it as an opportunity to escape.

Circumstances result in the two friends driving together to Koh Kong, along with Leya (Som Maleak), the girlfriend of another gang member who feels trapped and wants out. Leya has an uncle in Koh Kong who will buy the gems, she says, though they at first tell Rith they’re doctors on the way to treat children.

The three encounter obstacles along the way: police, the gang trying to seize the gems, lack of food in the jungle. They also meet interesting characters, though some may bristle at Leya’s remark that two disabled men “give me the creeps”, and the rather cheap exploitation of their difference for laughs. Luckily, though, in what could perhaps be interpreted as a gesture of tolerance, they turn out to be wholly benevolent, and pop up at the end to help out.

Aside from this awkward episode, the humour is for the most part innocent, inoffensive and charming. It doesn’t push boundaries - most of the laughs come from Rith’s clumsy slapsticks - but it acknowledges bigger issues like corruption, poverty and violence.

At just under two hours, Gems on the Run does drag on a bit, largely due to a prolonged middle section in the jungle when romance starts to blossom between Rith and Leya. To accept this requires a hefty suspension of disbelief, and not just because of the contrast between Som Maleak’s good looks and Rith’s utter ridiculousness: for the first half hour of their meeting, Leya all but refuses to even acknowledge Rith.

However, if you can get past this, it adds a charming touch, especially as Rith, who we are rooting for at this point, is unhappy about an arranged marriage to the ironically-named Pretty, a would-be diva with an interfering mother.

Gems on the Run is, on the whole, a hoot: a lighthearted, feel-good film about friendship and love conquering differences. Parts of it, such as the fact that it takes four days to drive from Phnom Penh to Koh Kong, are ridiculous. But only the most hard-hearted could leave without a grin.

Gems on the Run is at Legend and Platinum Cineplex cinemas. Both offer screenings with English subtitles.