This article contains spoilers for the documentary Surviving Bokator.
In April 2010, Mark Bochsler hobbled up the steps of what looked like a dilapidated old storage facility near Orussey Market on a pair of crutches. The Canadian photographer was looking for a good story to stretch his filmmaking skills, and in Grandmaster San Kim Sean he thought he had found it.
After surviving the Khmer Rouge, Kim Sean had lived in the United States and taught martial arts, but came back to Cambodia to follow a calling: reviving the ancient martial art of l’bokator. Other journalists before him had wanted to document Kim Sean’s story, and that of his rag-tag gang of students who trained in his Phnom Penh gym. But Bochsler’s handicap – a nearly-severed tendon – in the end may have done him favours. He kept showing up at the gym with his camera and crutches, a perseverance that endeared him to the martial arts crew facing their own obstacles.
“We didn’t know if the building would collapse,” Bochsler said. “But there was life in there.”
Bochsler arrived at an opportune moment for the sport. Kim Sean’s students – who included Tharoth Sam, now an actress and martial arts star, and Ung Darith, a well-known l’bokator practitioner – were preparing for an international competition in South Korea with the potential to put the sport on the map. At that time, Cambodia was an anomaly in the region in that it didn’t have a signature martial art. The competition was a perfect underdog story – with the grandmaster living in poverty but obsessed by his dreams, and the students spending their free time on their craft with no financial benefit. And in true Hollywood fashion, they manage to win second prize at the competition, an exhilarating moment that could easily have ended the film. Instead, the most interesting parts of Surviving Bokator begin at that moment.
“The ending was too cool I felt. It was very American, with a happy ending, Hollywood style,” Bochsler said. So he decided to keep filming, this time developing the story of the students rather than just focusing on Kim Sean. What he found were rifts beginning to show. Throughout the movie students make passing references to Kim Sean’s strictness. They express love for him as a surrogate father, and the disappointment that comes with feeling that a parent doesn’t respect their differences.
There are also rifts within the l’bokator community among the other masters – those running provincial schools – who resent Kim Sean for having taken his students to Korea and not theirs, and not having told them beforehand. In one scene, several of the men break down in tears after accusations are thrown at Kim Sean of being self-interested.
Finally, Darith, both an instructor and one of Kim Sean's students, decides to strike out, opening his own l’bokator academy, and the conflict comes to a head. In one striking scene, Darith returns to the old gym, where had been living, to retrieve his belongings and finds photographs of himself with the other students in which he has been marked out with an ‘x’.
For Bochsler, throughout the film, Darith had been the fall guy, the one who gets thrown to the mat by the master during every demonstration, while also working the hardest to keep the academy afloat.
“He was coming of age. He was asserting himself against an elder,” he said. “The elder wouldn’t relent.”
Tharoth Sam, who watched the film at its premiere in Long Beach, California, said it brought back memories of an emotional time. Sam had effectively lost her father, a celebrated songwriter, to an illness that rendered him mute during her teenage years, and Kim Sean had filled the gap.
“To us it’s like Grandmaster is the most serious person when he works on something. Sometimes he’s cool, generous and funny, like the father in the family. But then when Darith did something against Grandmaster it was like a war started,” she said. “It was like happens in all houses when the men have a problem – brothers have problems with fathers and it affects all the other members in the family.”
See a performance of l'bokator from yesterday:
The students made a choice, ultimately deciding to join Darith at his gym in Phnom Penh. In one shot, Kim Sean sits alone at his desk, the only person in sight in a cavernous gym space in an old factory on the outskirts of the city.
“Sometimes young people had different ideas and thoughts but Grandmaster is the elder so he had his own way to work on things,” Sam said. “Sometimes he thought all of us were against him so he didn’t feel like all of us were on his side ever.”
Now eight years since the filming began, much has changed. A l’bokator federation has been created and has government support, with the government seeking Unesco recognition for the sport. And the students and Kim Sean have long ago made up.
And a film that had begun as a genocide story about struggle and perseverance had morphed into another, perhaps more genuine post-conflict tale, of intergenerational strife and the likely impacts of post-traumatic stress.
As Boschler filmed, he went back consulted research on collective trauma, noticing factors, such as a quick rise to anger, at play throughout the filming that he hadn’t originally appreciated. In screening the film in areas with a large Cambodian diaspora population, Bochsler has been repeatedly approached by viewers saying aspects of the conflict mirrored their personal lives.
“I came to realise the deeper themes of the film and the ability to resonate longer was because of that familial or intergenerational conflict,” he said. “That was the biggest outcome of my patience and the desire to hold on and go with my gut feeling.”
Surviving Bokator will show at the Cambodia International Film Festival in an open air screening at Koh Pich City Hall on Friday, March 9 at 6:30pm, and at the same time on Saturday, March 10 at Chaktomuk Theater.