Modern medicine and traditional techniques face off this week in Mind Cage, a film by Indian director Amit Dubey that was shot entirely in Cambodia, which is premiering this week at the Cambodian International Film Festival.
Dubey’s psychological thriller tells the story of a psychiatrist in Phnom Penh who defies traditional medical methods employed by Kru Khmer (traditional healers), which involves the use of harsh treatments to cure mentally ill patients. His disrespect for the traditional practices outrages one such healer. Meanwhile, his attempt to challenge the superstition also affects his family life due to his wife’s belief in Kru Khmer techniques.
Mind Cage is the first feature film from Dubey, who has lived in Cambodia for six years. It was co-written by Michael Hodgson, who also contributed to writing on the recent action comedy Jailbreak, with the undisclosed budget funded entirely by Dubey and his friends and relatives.
Dubey’s inspiration for the film comes from his curiosity about the traditional Cambodian ways of treating mental illness, which are very similar to those in his native India.
“In India, [mentally] ill people also turn to magic and rituals as the way of healing. The only difference is that in India, there is no magician to cast the love spell or make the love potions like in Cambodia,” he says.
Although Dubey and his crew spent only 20 days on filming, which was mostly done in Phnom Penh, Kien Svay and Areyksat, it took him a whole year to research the topic.
“For an entire year, I read a lot of documents, and met and talked with Kru Khmer, doctors, psychiatrists, monks and Buddhists to find out more about the traditional medical methods and the people’s belief in the superstition,” Dubey says.
While not explicitly featuring the supernatural in the film, Dubey says that he doesn’t aim to prove that “the dark side” exists, but to show the significance of superstition in a people’s mindset.
“The psychiatrist represents the small proportion of Cambodian people who do not believe in superstition, but he lives among those who do, and of course it will be tough for him to convince the others to change their belief,” he says.
In Cambodia, people often trust medicine from traditional healers more than pharmaceuticals because they consider it to be more natural. Similarly, fortunetellers and spirit mediums, whose techniques date back hundreds of years, are cheaper than modern medicine.
For Sveng Socheata, who plays the psychiatrist’s wife in Mind Cage, the film has a certain autobiographical element. She says that her own life experience is a testament to the powers of traditional medicine.
“For four years, I suffered from a severe brain tumour. I spent almost every penny I had on modern treatment, but it was not cured,” says the veteran actress, who also starred in Angelina Jolie’s First They Killed My Father.
When she ran out of hope in 2014, Socheata met a Kru Khmer who “cured” her brain tumour with his herbal medicine and ritual, and he is now her soon-to-be husband.
“I think science and superstition complement one another. Just because you do not believe in something, I suggest you not insult it,” she says.
Mind Cage will be shown at Major Cineplex (March 5 at 6:30pm), Legend TK Avenue (March 6 at 4:30pm) and Legend Steung Meanchey (March 8 at 5:10pm). For future releases, please check the film’s facebook page.