The short film Work Life by Cambodian-American director Kevin Ung is set to premiere next month at the 47th Cleveland International Film Festival (CIFF). Ung is the son of a Cambodian couple who escaped the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror and immigrated to America.
The film is about four corporate co-workers who unknowingly cross paths during a chaotic weekend that leaves their lives intertwined through improbable twists of fate, according to Ung.
Though on the surface the film seems to be a comedy,Work Life touches on deeper themes like the loneliness and detachment of modern life that office workers are often faced with.
The 47th CIFF will take place as a hybrid event March 22 – April 1, with in-person screenings at the Playhouse Square in downtown Cleveland and the film will also be screening at the Cinequest festival in San Jose, California from August 16–29.
“For years I worked in different offices and remember times when I would come in and just wonder: what am I doing here?” said Ung regarding his inspiration for the film.
The 13-minute film features four characters – Cyrus, Mitch, Terry and Kaitlin – with interwoven storylines, from Cyrus’s botched plans for a romantic night with Kaitlin, to Mitch’s cross-town drug-induced partying to Terry’s peaceful night gone wrong and finally to Kaitlin’s night spinning out of control.
Work Life is a glimpse into the private lives of ordinary people who are ultimately striving for something more than just working in an office.
Ung said that “it’s a story about the sadness, triviality and emptiness of the office, and how ‘real life’ occurs in the few hours we have outside of it.”
He said that Work Life is a window into who people really are beneath their suits and ties. Because of the global pandemic and the rise of working from home, it’s clear that people are looking to leave the office and find more balance.
“Work Life is a look at the excitement that can exist outside of work and the silos that exist within it. It is a movie that shows audiences that there really is more to life than work…a lot more,” he said.
Matthew Stewart, a screenwriter born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania who wrote the screenplay, said the inspiration for the film came after a series of long weeks behind a desk in a draining corporate environment.
“After the mindless repetition of Monday morning water-cooler conversations week after week, I realized that, despite spending most of my daily life with these people, I didn’t really know anyone I worked with,” he said.
Stewart said the over-sanitization of most interactions between employees left him feeling hollow and the short film is his way of understanding the complexity behind that feeling and the realization thjat sometimes the people he spends the most time with at work are the biggest strangers in his life.
Ung says he is one of a handful of Cambodian-Americans of his generation pursuing filmmaking. He noted that few people know about the Cambodian genocide and himself and his contemporaries serve as a unique bridge that links the atrocities of the previous generation in Cambodia to the challenging experience of Cambodians in America and their hopes and dreams for the future.
Ung’s mother is from Battambang province and his father is from Kampong Cham province. They immigrated to the US and Ung was born in California. His family eventually settled in the city of San Francisco.
Few people know that Cambodian-Americans face some of the worst poverty, education and crime rates in America and even fewer know that nearly 90 per cent of Cambodian artists were killed in the Cambodian genocide, according to Ung, who has a Master’s of Fine Arts (MFA) in film and television production from the University of Southern California (USC), one of the top film schools in the world.
“While I wish to tell stories about the genocide and the refugee experience, I want to stress that these experiences do not and should not define me or my community, as much as the world believes so. I want to tell more than just stories about trauma and Work Life is an opportunity to do so,” he said.
He says this film is an opportunity to tell the world a story that Ung wants to tell on his own terms, and if it’s told through his eyes, it is a Cambodian movie.
“It’s an opportunity to show the world that Cambodians can do more than just tell stories about suffering. It’s an opportunity to show that despite trying to exterminate Cambodia’s storytellers, the Khmer Rouge failed,” said Ung, adding that “it’s an opportunity to show the world that we are still here and defying expectations.”
Ung also directed Refrigerate After Opening – a six-minute film about a man who is experiencing difficulties and who finds the key to changing his life inside his refrigerator, which won the Audience Choice Award at the USC student film festival.
Another short film he directed Flee is about two sisters who run for their lives with an infant in tow and is based on true events and he also directed Chubby Can Kill, a comedy about an overweight video store clerk bullied by local gangsters until he attempts to defeat them by emulating his favourite action movie heroes.
Ung told The Post that he looks forward to having Work Life premiere in late March in Cleveland and then play in August at Cinequest.”