Phnom Penh in the days before the Khmer Rouge marched into the city on April 17, 1975, was a dangerous and febrile place.The delirious chaos of the civil war was reaching its zenith. Paranoia and fear were rife. Passions were high. Everyone was desperate to take what they could and get out. It’s a fantastic setting for a feature film, and it’s surprising it’s taken until now.
Before the Fall – the debut feature from Australian filmmaker Ian White – is a noir-ish action thriller centering on a love triangle between Cambodian chanteuse Liya, her former French lover Luc, a once-idealistic war photographer, and her current boyfriend, the thuggish American nightclub owner Sonny. White describes it as “Casablanca with a psychedelic visual and Cambodian rock ’n’ roll soundtrack”.
While snapping photos during a battle at an Angkorian temple, Luc comes across a big bag of army money that he hides in an officer’s jeep. When it turns out the money is Sonny’s, and he in turn owes it to a murderous local gangster, it’s not just Liya’s heart that’s up for grabs – and the influence of a mysterious fortune teller with dubious motives just complicates things even further.
Meanwhile, everyone’s keen to bail before the black pajamas arrive.
With the backing of the Royal Group’s Rock Productions, White had about $200,000 to play with making the film – the first Cambodian-funded feature made primarily for the overseas market – which is, as he points out, less than the catering budget on some Hollywood pictures. With that, he’s managed to include plenty of action scenes – including a great shoot out at what is in reality Phnom Penh’s decaying old colonial police station – and the film has a slick look.
However, some of the special effects and props are suspect, and it may have been useful to bring in another script doctor to polish up the screenplay even further.
The quality of the acting varies widely too, with two out of the three leads having only limited cinema experience.
Pauline Cammal, who grew up in Cambodia, France and Canada and plays Liya, was chosen for the role in part because of her proficiency in Khmer, English and French. Her previous experience was mainly in school theatre productions. Despite this, she pulls off a solid performance and actually improves greatly as the film goes on.
Luc, played by gangly, wild-haired French model turned actor Nicolas Berthery, is ostensibly the hero of the piece. However, with his lanky limbs, he doesn’t have the physicality to convince as a hand-to-hand fighter. A scene in which, dressed only in briefs, he bashes a masked assailant with a lamp is unintentionally hilarious. Also presumably unintentional is the fact the character is by turns insufferably earnest and unendurably smug. He left me wishing the bad guys had better aim.
Ian Virgo, a US-born Welshman, is a journeyman actor who has been cast in films and television on both sides of the Atlantic and had a role in Black Hawk Down. His experience really shows in Before the Fall playing Sonny, who has a sea lion moustache and truly stellar manbun.
He clearly relishes his expletive laden role. Not necessarily a pleasant character, Sonny is redeemed by the actor’s natural charisma, and by the end of the film, I couldn’t help but wish he’d end up with Liya instead of the Frenchie.
The Cambodian supporting cast is surprisingly good, too. Veteran Hun Sophy plays an appropriately menacing officer with a patch over one eye, while Our Dara, a bokator fighter who played the lead in the recent bokator film Year of the Monkey, shows he has the one-two combo of martial arts and acting skills. Cambodian-American poet Khosal Khiev also has a role as one of Sonny’s gambling-addicted associates.
The soundtrack – mostly by the Cambodian Space Project - is fantastic, with just the right energy and psychedelic vibe (although the dubbing when Liya is supposed to be singing is distracting).
The Tarantino-esque final scenes are the best of the film as the blood flows, plots unravel and the tables are repeatedly turned. It would have been great if the film could have maintained that level of wildness for the full two hours.
While it’s not perfect by any means, there’s plenty to enjoy in Before the Fall. It’s well worth checking out during the Cambodia International Film Festival, or when it receives a local theatrical release in January as the Cambodian industry ratchets up the quality another notch.
Before the Fall’s world premiere is tomorrow at Major Cineplex at 2pm with screenings at Legend Stung Meanchey 9:15am on Tuesday and Legend Citymall 4pm on Wednesday.