He’s being hailed as the one of the great actors of his generation; a natural screen talent; the next Cambodian with the ability to make it big, like The Killing Field’s Haing S Ngor. If only he can find the time.
On a recent evening, Phoeung Kompheak was sitting behind a smudged white screen, next to a chain-smoking drummer, ordering around shadow puppeteers. They were rehearsing for a production of the great Hindu epic, the Ramayana, to be performed during this week’s Water Festival.
Only a few hours earlier he had been translating between French and Khmer at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. On weekends he teaches French Literature at the Royal University of Phnom Penh.
If he ever has a spare moment, he also enjoys writing prose and poetry in both Khmer and French.
He recently added film star to his list of occupations after making his acting debut as Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Comrade Duch, in the French-Cambodian production of The Gate. The film is set to screen at a gala invite-only Cambodian premiere on November 19 at Aeon Mall and then run at the Cambodian International Film Festival next month.
Directed by Régis Wargnier, the film, called Le Temps de Aveux in French, is a semi-fictional dramatisation of the memoir of anthropologist François Bizot – played by French actor Raphael Personnaz – who was captured by the Khmer Rouge in 1971. Bizot developed a relationship with his captor, Duch, who eventually released the Frenchman after being convinced he was not a spy.
Duch went on to head the notorious S21 torture and execution centre at Tuol Sleng and was subsequently tried and found guilty at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal of crimes against humanity, murder and torture.
After the rehearsals at the Kok Thlok Artists Association finished, Kompheak explained how he had worked at the tribunal for about five years – including several months translating for Duch’s defence team.
“What I observed with Duch was that he has a very soft voice, he speaks calmly, he always does the same gestures with his hands,” said Kompheak.
“Sometimes he can get angry very suddenly. Those are the things I remembered of him, and it allowed me to embody him correctly”
After The Gate screened at the Telluride Film Festival in August, a Hollywood Reporter review singled out Kompheak’s performance as “superb”.
“The actor conveys intelligence as well as a capacity for brutality; we’re held in suspense contemplating his complex nature,” it said.
Born in 1976 in Sisophon, the provincial capital of Banteay Meanchey province, Kompheak has no memories of life under the Khmer Rouge.
His father – who died while The Gate was being filmed after having a stroke – was a factory worker and his mother sold fish.
He developed a love of theatre at a young age, sneaking away from his parents to watch travelling thespians perform tragedies and morality tales. He saw his first film, an Indian Bollywood production, when he was 10 years old at Sisophon’s makeshift cinema, where VHS tapes were played on an old television set.
As a teenager, he started studying English and French but found English more difficult and dropped the language after only a few months. He moved to Phnom Penh when he was 20 to study at the Institute of Foreign Languages and received a scholarship to study French and French Literature in France.
When he speaks in English, Kompheak now has a mixed Khmer-French accent. Between draws on an Ara cigarette, he talks slowly and carefully, punctuated by frequent “aahs” as he seeks the right word.
Asked how he ended up with a role in The Gate, Kompheak said it was an “accident” – he received a call out of nowhere after a friend gave his name to the Cambodian Film Commission, which assisted the production.
“I told them, ‘I don’t have time … except maybe on Saturday or Sunday I can come’, and they agreed,” he said.
After the first audition, Wargnier himself came to Cambodia to see Kompheak in person.
Quoted in a press release, Wargnier said finding the right actor who could speak French and Khmer was a big challenge and Kompheak impressed him on their first meeting with his knowledge of the French language and literature.
“I think that the way he expresses himself in our language also immediately attracted me,” he said.
After that it was to be another 12 months before Kompheak heard from the producers again.
“Then one day they call me [and asked], ‘You are still motivated?’ and I said: ‘Okay’.”
Wargnier said Kompheak had to reflect on, and make, some delicate decisions about, how to do the role.
“How do you play Duch, bringing to this work a sense of the man, without sharing his views? Making use of his proximity but eschewing judgement? Putting forward the person of Duch without falling prey to his subjective view of events?” he said.
Kompheak admitted taking on the role was not an easy decision.
“Even before filming started I asked myself a lot of questions, because it’s a difficult role to interpret, especially when you know that you’re going to embody an executioner,” he said.
“Duch had many prisoners at S-21 who ended up dead. So it was difficult morally to embody this role, but after a while I said to myself: ‘There needs to be someone to play a villain.’ If there are only people who embody good, we can’t see wrongdoing on film.
“As far as the audience goes, in my childhood when I watched theatrical performances … when the villain was attacking the unfortunate people, sometimes people in the audience threw stones onto the stage to stop the villain. But I think, well I hope, that today we know how to distinguish between theatre, cinema and reality.”
Every day on set was a challenge as he sought to portray the “strange” relationship between Bizot and Duch, which included lengthy philosophical and moral discussions.
“Bizot, his life is in my hands, and I like to hear his reasoning, argument – and so it’s very bizarre,” he said.
One of Kompheak’s most enthusiastic fans is Oscar-nominated director Rithy Panh, the godfather of modern Cambodian cinema.
Sitting with a fat cigar behind a book-covered desk at his office at the Bophana Centre this week, Panh, who co-produced The Gate, said he and Kompheak first connected through of a shared love of poetry.
“He writes very beautiful poems,” he said. “He is one of the greatest talents for the new generation.”
The elder filmmaker was almost effusive in his praise of Kompheak, saying he had the same kind of indefinable film presence and star quality as Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Tom Cruise.
“I see what Kompheak can do and I’m very impressed. It’s very natural. It’s like he’s been [acting] for many years,” he said.
“It’s only his first film. Maybe you can think that he’s a translator at the tribunal so he has time to observe Duch.
“But there is something particular from Kompheak also. He puts something more. You can see it in the movie. He interprets the character. I think he can be a great actor.”
However, Panh said Kompheak needed to avoid the career trajectory of Haing S Ngor, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar and Golden Globe for his portrayal of photojournalist Dith Pran in the 1984 film The Killing Fields, another Khmer Rouge film, but only ever had one other substantial role.
“For Ngor, it’s very difficult because he worked in Holly-wood – and how many Asian actors have great roles in big films?” Panh said.
“It’s better for Kompheak to work on Khmer films – good Khmer projects with young people.
“There is a new generation of young directors now. He should contribute to a few films like this and work on big projects when they come to Cambodia.
“I think he will be spotted by the casting directors. And it depends on the success of The Gate also. If The Gate has a big success travelling the world then Kompheak will be known.”
He added that he would love to work with Kompheak in the future: “But maybe he will be a big star and I cannot afford to pay him!”
Kompheak said he was open to the idea of doing more films – but wouldn’t do just anything.
“It depends on the proposal,” Kompheak said. “If some producer or filmmaker proposed me something interesting, why not? I need to know also the scenario and then, if it’s interesting for me, okay, but I have many responsibilities.
“I like acting but I have a lot of work here [at the theatre] and at the tribunal and university. If I play, it must be a good film.”
Additional reporting by Harriet Fitch Little.