Produced in 2021, Karmalink, the Kingdom’s first home-grown science fiction feature film, will debut in Cambodian cinemas on February 17. The film features augmented reality and state-of-the-art visual effects.
The film was co-produced by local filmmaker Sok Visal and directed by American Jake Wachtel. The cast and additional crew are all Cambodian.
“This really will be a ‘first sci-fi’ for Cambodian cinema – filmed in Cambodia, with a Khmer cast and crew” said Wachtel.
“Cambodian culture has deeply inspired me. I hope Cambodians will feel proud to see their city and their culture reflected in the sci-fi genre with a vision of Phnom Penh in the future – one that is relevant to Cambodia’s traditions and beliefs too,” he added.
The movie was the opening film for the 36th Venice International Film Critics’ Week in 2021, according to the director.
Nearly 600 films from 75 countries were submitted for consideration for the festival, which takes place annually in Venice, Italy.
Wachtel said that since then the film has played in festivals all over the world and won several top awards, before being released in North America.
Produced by Los Angeles-based Valerie Steinberg Productions, the cast of Karmalink features Wachtel’s former students. He met them while volunteering as a teacher in an underprivileged community in Phnom Penh.
“Karmalink is about karma and reincarnation: It opens with a man hooking himself up to a machine, praying, ‘I am born of my karma, heir to my karma’,” said Wachtel.
The story tells the tale of an ordinary Cambodian teenager, Leng Heng, 13, whose family is facing eviction from his home in the Tralok Bek area of Phnom Penh because the land is needed for development.
The screen fades to show a thief stealing a golden Buddha statuette and burying it in a field after being confronted by a monk. Heng awakens from this dream, eventually seeking the treasure he believes he stole, hid and discovered over multiple past lives.
Heng enlists the help of street-smart girl Srey Leak to go on a quest to find the statue. The two teenagers believe it will help save Heng’s home.
As part of the search for the statue, the teenagers and their friends dabble in neuroscience, using augmented reality and other digital applications.
In doing so, the teenagers discover a link between Heng and a genius Cambodian neuroscientist named Vattanak. Is Heng the reincarnation of Vattanak?
In addition to wanting to wow audiences in Cambodia, Wachtel said he also made this film to bring a unique and exciting Cambodian story to audiences worldwide.
Both Wachtel and co-producer Sok Visal, founder of 802 Films, are aware that Karmalink is a break from Cambodia’s cinematic norm.
“Although Cambodian cinema is becoming increasingly sophisticated, productions are still dominated by simple storylines that include love triangles and slapstick comedy,” said Visal.
He said Karmalink is different because it looks at a Cambodia where the country’s beliefs and traditions concerning re-incarnation co-exist with futuristic applications such as neuro-science and augmented reality.
“In traditional Buddhism, karma refers to action driven by intention which leads to future consequences. The actions from a previous life can impact your current life and your actions in this life can affect your next life ... Karmalink takes these traditional Buddhist beliefs and connects them to modern topics like science, technology and virtual reality,” Visal told The Post.
The mystery at the heart of their adventure, and the dream-recording AR technology the teenagers encounter, allows the story to casually engage with memory and reincarnation.
“Together they follow clues across town and into the past. As Heng’s dreams converge with the present, his very sense of identity begins to unravel. When it becomes clear that the stakes are higher than they imagined, the two friends must decide how far they are willing to go to find their treasure and the truth,” explains the film’s official synopsis.
By taking a futuristic look at Cambodia that is grounded in today’s reality, the film’s producers are hoping to show how the country’s traditional beliefs can co-exist with modern-day applications and provoke a discussion about the intersection of technology, karma, and the search for enlightenment.
Karmalink will open at Major Cineplex Cambodia and Legend cinema in Phnom Penh on February 17, with the premier taking place the day before.