Oum Sam Tharoth remembers that during her first martial arts fight in 2014 she could see her parents crying from across the octagon as she took blow after blow from her opponent. She won, but nonetheless afterwards they insisted that she give up her dream.
Tharoth had begun studying Bokator, a traditional Khmer fighting style, six years before when she was 18, under the prominent master San Kim Sean. She was too old to start practising, the people around her said, while her father Oum Dara, a well-known violinist and songwriter, disapproved of his daughter’s new path, hoping that she would follow in his footsteps.
A self-described rebel since she was a young girl raised in the “Site Two” refugee camp on the border with Thailand, Tharoth was unwavering in her path.
“To become a famous combat athlete has been my dream since I was a child,” she said this week. “In all my life, all I wanted is to become a great fighter and win as many matches as possible.”
That dream evolved, however, when an unexpected opportunity presented itself to the 27-year-old fighter.
In 2016, when Loy Te, the French-Cambodian film producer for Kongchak Pictures, was getting ready to make Jailbreak, a genre-busting Cambodian action film, he agreed with director Jimmy Henderson and the rest of the crew that they needed a female character as one of the heroes. Te was impressed by her fighting skills, and soon he decided to ask her to join the cast.
“A lot of qualities convinced us she was the right candidate for the role,” Loy said in an email yesterday. “She looked so innocent and so different from the [other] girls in the ring. But she had a lot of passion for martial arts, and a strong desire to pursue a career as a performer, while being a good role-model for women … and she trained hard to pull off the choreographies in Jailbreak.”
In Jailbreak, Tharoth played one of three cops escorting a mobster known as Playboy out of prison after a riot breaks out. Although Tharoth is still at the start of her acting career, her appearance in the film has already brought popularity.
“We’ve toured the festivals around the world for Jailbreak,” he added. “And everywhere people loved her for being a sweetheart that can kick ass on screen, but be loving and caring with her fans.”
That the project was nerve-racking for Tharoth only added to the appeal, and she was soon dreaming of becoming a Cambodian Bruce Lee or Tony Jaa.
“I was nervous and afraid, and to me life is about always challenging myself,” Tharoth says. “A dream could appear anytime of people’s life, but it could never be too late.”
This year, Tharoth has appeared in several other films, including Angelina Jolie’s First They Killed My Father, in which she played a Khmer Rouge cadre, and in Loung Preah Sdach Korn, a historical epic.
Despite her early success in acting, she says she has no plans to abandon her fighting career. In November, at the Full Metal Dojo 15 event in Bangkok, Tharoth earned her fourth cage-fighting victory – with the use of an arm bar – in the first round against her Thai opponent Kaewjai Prachumwong. She has only fought six matches on the MMA circuit, but she is already recognised as one of Cambodia’s top mixed martial artists, and her speed, flexibility and size have earned her the nickname “Little Frog”.
Already with new roles for her in mind, Te thinks that eventually there will come a time when she will need to choose which profession to commit to.
“Being an actress who can fight and speak fluent English is a very strong advantage for her to export herself to other countries,” he said. “But, every time she steps in the ring, we do fear for her a bit, as a bad injury can affect her career both in acting and fighting.”
Tharoth embraces this risk, however, saying she would never blame anyone else were she to suffer a career-ending injury. The choice has been hers, as should be the case for all Cambodian women, she says.
“I am committed to do my best in both the octagon and action movies,” Tharoth said. “I want to prove that the view that stereotype Cambodian women are weak and vulnerable is nothing but a mistake.”