Cambodian fantasy film gets a dose of Southern hospitality

Nathaniel Nuon and cast members view footage during the filming of "Broken Balance" in Alabama.
Nathaniel Nuon and cast members view footage during the filming of "Broken Balance" in Alabama. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Cambodian fantasy film gets a dose of Southern hospitality

The US state of Alabama is associated with many things (Lynard Skynard’s "Sweet Home Alabama", Martin Luther King, Southern cooking), but Angkorian-era mystery is not one of them. One Emmy-award-winning filmmaker hopes his upcoming Cambodian fantasy flick will change that.

Nathaniel Nuon, 32, who was born in Battambang but has lived in Alabama since he was three years old, filmed Broken Balance, about a young Cambodian-American with superpowers, in the US earlier this year. He hopes it will make its premiere in his home country in the coming months.

It’s not the director’s first film for the Cambodian market. In 2010, his short film Residue, which recounts the CIA’s involvement in pre-Khmer Rouge Cambodia, won two regional Emmy Awards for best production and best original score.

But for his new film, which he hopes will be the first of a six-part saga, Nuon has set his sights even higher.

“The goal is to be the biggest ever Cambodian film by a Khmer director with a Khmer lead,” said the filmmaker, speaking over Skype.

“For what we’re doing, it’s pretty far out from a typical Cambodian film budget.”

The plot follows Danny (played by Nuon’s brother Peter), a parentless 16-year-old Cambodian-American living in the Alabama countryside near the town of Mobile.

Over the course of the film, he finds out he possesses otherworldly powers that reach far back into Khmer history that make him something of a superhuman.

Alabama’s climate and landscape can be similar to Cambodia’s, allowing local woods to stand in for Cambodian forests, while Angkorian temples were digitally added to the set.

Nuon said that setting the film away from major Cambodian-American centres, such as Long Beach, California, and Lowell, Massachusetts, provided a window into a less known quarter of the community.

“I have friends from Long Beach and Massachusetts, and when I tell them I’m from Alabama, I get the same reaction: ‘Where? You’re a Cambodian director who landed in Mobile, Alabama? That’s the strangest thing!’”

But the genesis of the film came after a visit to Cambodia in 2012, during which Nuon met children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“I wanted to write these characters to be like figures of hope, and heroes for these kids,” said Nuon. “A lot of the Cambodian kids I met were from broken families, so I wanted to show Danny and his sister growing up by themselves.

“He goes to school, he has to work, and I think it’s a lifestyle they can relate to. But inside them is something greater, more powerful.”

American characters were adapted to be more identifiable to Cambodian youth, he added.

While Broken Balance features 70 per cent English dialogue, the film was written with a Cambodian audience in mind and will be screened first in Cambodia, Nuon said. Screenings in the US will follow.

With principal photography finished, Nuon has entered into negotiations with Cambodian distributors and the Ministry of Culture to release the film, although said he was unsure when it would happen.

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