Slickly produced and genre-busting, Jailbreak is a celebration of what Cambodia has to offer. Next week’s release could be a defining moment in the growth of Khmer cinema.
At last Friday’s red carpet premiere of Jailbreak, a much-buzzed-about action comedy featuring an international and local cast, the movie’s slick marketing was on full display.
During a performance by local rap-pop duo Khmeng Khmer, who also act in the movie, a group of stuntmen in prisoner scrubs burst onto the red carpet, using the local Bokator fighting style as they staged a mock prison riot. Off to the side, fans of the movie tried out a Jailbreak video game that will be launched in conjunction with the release of the film in theatres on January 31.
To say that expectations are high for the movie would be an understatement. It is being talked about as a departure for Cambodian filmmaking in almost every way: the camera work is slick, the cast is both local and international, and it is an action film.
After its run in local cinemas, the film’s distributors expect it to be the first Cambodian film distributed throughout the region in Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar, Laos and, hopefully, eventually to China. Despite a relatively small budget for a blockbuster-style film of approximately $260,000, the movie managed to attract a diverse crew from abroad and throughout Cambodian society.
Celine Tran, a former adult film star from France, plays Butterfly, a villainous gang leader, while respected French-Cambodian action choreographer Jean-Paul Ly (Dr. Strange, Lucy) plays a foreign cop brought in to help local police deliver a connected business man and criminal nicknamed “Playboy” (Savin Phillip) to the notorious Prey Khla prison.
Alongside Ly stars Tharoth Sam and Our Dara, each famous Bokator fighters who play local police officers. As they attempt to deliver Playboy to the prison, they run into an onslaught of problems from characters hell-bent on assassinating Playboy. These include the burly Sisowath Siriwudd, who plays a gang leader inside the prison, Butterfly, and “the cannibal”, a gargantuan deranged inmate with aggressive and peculiar culinary tastes.
In a country where low-budget horror films make up the vast majority of what is on offer, Jailbreak was an ambitious endeavour. That ambition, Italian director Jimmy Henderson says, is what made it so easy to attract talented artists.
“I think people wanted to be part of this because we didn’t propose a horror comedy, and we didn’t propose a romantic comedy,” said Henderson. “We proposed a big action film in a prison. That’s what we bring them – the novelty to make something different together.”
While the genre is unique in Cambodia, Henderson did his homework beforehand to see what would play well with local audiences. He studied local horror movies, inspecting their DNA. What he found was that, more so than narrative, humour is what brings locals to the cinema.
“I was talking to a Khmer guy, and he was telling me that when he goes to the cinema with his friends, they will judge a movie on how many funny scenes there are in that movie,” he explained.
“‘Oh, this one has four funny scenes, that one has two funny scenes but this one has 10 funny scenes!’” Henderson’s last film, a dark action film called Hanuman, was brooding and serious, and it struggled at the box office; Jailbreak, by contrast, is the opposite. It is self-consciously silly, and much of the comedy is of the slapstick variety.
Comedians Neay Pekmi and Neay Krouch, who are both famous for their comedy sketches, star in one scene reminiscent of a Marx Brothers sketch, in which the two argue about which direction to take after escaping their cells.
“We wanted to make it as big as possible with the resources that we had,” Henderson says. “Somebody might like action films, but the people who like comedy wouldn’t come. So we were trying to reach different audiences with different backgrounds. The good thing I find is that everybody was really keen to join the project.”
One of the boons to the movie’s promotion has been the involvement of Khmeng Khmer, rising stars on the Cambodian pop scene. French-Cambodian producer Loy Te, of Kongchak Productions, approached the musicians after seeing them perform last year.
“I was like ‘I love your music, and I think it could match with what we’re trying to do’ to be something modern and targeting the young,” he said. Khmeng Khmer put together a song for the movie and later released a music video that was viewed on YouTube about 300,000 times in the first two days.
Before the video’s release, the duo performed in May at the National Games. To a packed Olympic Stadium crowd, with the video broadcasting live on Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Facebook feed, Khmeng Khmer debuted the song. Jailbreak had arrived.
Other fortuitous partnerships arose as the movie started to build buzz. Piseth Chhourm, the co-founder of local video game company Direx Play, contacted the filmmakers. “It came out that they were going to have the first action movie that included Khmer and international actors,” Chhourm said.
“A lot of Hollywood movies have games along with the release of the movie so why don’t we make something great for Cambodia?” Chhourm and his team signed an agreement with Westec Media, the investor and distributor of the film, for rights to use the characters, and the game will be the first in Cambodia to be based on a film.
For Tharoth Sam, who is nicknamed “Little Frog” for her scrappy MMA fighting style and diminutive size, the film is an opportunity to hook a new generation of moviegoers. “I think this movie will connect to the audience [because of] our fighting action,” she said. “Because they’ve never seen this kind of action movie like this with Cambodian actors or actresses. Also, most ladies will be proud to see Khmer girls can kick ass in the movie.”
Despite the local buzz, there are no guarantees of commercial success. There are still just 23 movie screens in the entire country that play licensed films. The film’s broader success depends on doing well in the big markets in Thailand and Malaysia so that it can then spread elsewhere. “[Foreign distributors] are looking for the hot new thing out of Asia,” Henderson said, citing Indonesia’s The Raid as an example. “They’re wondering ‘what’s going on in Cambodia?’”
Working on films in the country since 2011, Henderson marvels at how much has changed. For example, access to high-quality equipment is no longer an issue. Still, he says filmmakers and investors need to take risks if the industry is going to improve.
“In the street, there are more people driving Lexuses, but the streets aren’t getting any bigger,” he explains. “It’s the same thing in the industry . . . If this movie is successful, it can prove to other people that you don’t need to be stuck in what you’ve been doing for the last five years.”
Jailbreak is out in theatres on January 31. Watch the trailer here: