A Cambodian-Italian genre film, Hanuman: Year of the Monkey is brought to life by its bawdy cast of high-kicking villains
In upcoming Cambodian martial arts flick, Hanuman: Year of the Monkey, a masked vigilante trained in bokator methodically dispatches a small army of gangsters in a violent quest for revenge. However, in this unashamedly low-brow exercise in Tarantino-esque genre filmmaking, it’s the villains who are the true stars.
The film – which was co-written and directed by Italian filmmaker Jimmy Henderson – opens with two young brothers, Vicheat and Srong, witnessing their father being brutally strangled and stabbed to death.
The young Vicheat suffers a blow to the head while trying to attack the lead perpetrator, up-and-coming crime boss Kim Veng. He wakes up in a rural village in the care of an aged bokator grandmaster and his short, hairy sidekick.
Cut to 12 years later, and Vicheat (Dara Our), now a deadly hand-to-hand fighter, has returned to the city bearing a mask with the face of the monkey god Hanuman – and thirst for bloody revenge against Veng, now a powerful crime lord. Meanwhile, Srong (Ung Sopheakmith) has become an honest cop with a wife, daughter and gambling-addicted best friend.
While the plot is laughably derivative – perhaps intentionally so – there’s a lot to like about this film.
The action scenes – which feature real bokator fighters – are highly kinetic, with brutal impact. A sequence in which Vicheat goes from room to room annihilating an entire KTV full of gangsters, the dimly lit close-quarters fighting in the corridors reminiscent of Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, is particularly good fun.
And the villain Veng, a sadistic, golf-playing sociopath with an addiction to sniffing Tiger Balm and a reverse-Oedipal thing going on with his son’s girlfriend, is a joy to watch. He’s played by veteran television and film actor Savin Phillip who is obviously having a great time with such a subversive, dynamic character.
Veng’s henchmen too – a psychotic bunch introduced in a stylish montage – each have their own quirks: whether a love of karaoke or a tendency to burn their victims alive or a fetish for dismembering people while wearing rubber gloves.
In comparison, the film’s protagonist brothers have about as much character as a plain bowl of bobor. Vicheat, whose violent tendencies belie his boy band good looks, sullenly bludgeons his way through the film, smiling maybe twice. Srong is a bland, goody-two-shoes cop whose main contribution is to compile a dossier on Veng that he’s too afraid to act on.
It’s all unabashedly free of pretention, featuring as much sex and violence as the Ministry of Culture would allow, which means not much sex but quite a lot of violence.
According to Henderson, he was ordered to tone down some of the more drawn-out brutality and cut one shot of a woman dropping her panties and another of a police officer being struck in the head with a ball of crumpled paper. Apparently disrespect to the authorities is no-no. But stabbing a man repeatedly in the chest with a metal pipe? No worries.
Henderson, who also worked on the zombie film Run and the in-production thriller Before The Fall, seems intent on creating an industry of low-budget genre flicks in Cambodia – Khmersploitation films, if you will.
While the execution isn’t always the greatest, there are some great ideas brought to the screen in Hanuman. With the ending leaving plenty of scope for a sequel, it would be great to see what Henderson can do a second time around with a bigger budget.
Hanuman opens in Cambodian cinemas on Friday, February 13.