A low-budget Filipino-American filmmaker and a Cambodian tycoon accused of land grabbing are planning to make a Khmer Rouge-martial arts movie together, with the hope that it will spread the philosophy behind Vietnam’s homegrown fighting style
Hollywood filmmaker Ace Cruz first met Cambodian tycoon and accused “rubber baron” Rat Sokhorn in 2013 at the Southeast Asian Games in Myanmar. Cruz was in town to watch his nephew compete for the Philippines in the high jump, and happened to be staying at the same hotel as Sokhorn – a judge for the vovinam martial arts team competition.
“We hit it off and he invited me to come visit Cambodia,” Cruz told Post Weekend over Skype from his Los Angeles home. “Three months later, I took up his offer to visit.”
In the years since, Cruz has visited the Kingdom several more times and the two have become firm friends. They now have big plans to collaborate together, including a multimillion-dollar martial arts film titled Fight for Life and a film academy with campuses in both Cambodia and Vietnam, whose construction was announced at the end of last month.
It’s an unusual friendship that itself feels somewhat Hollywood-esque in its particulars – and would probably make for a good “buddy picture”.
Cruz, who was born in the Philippines (“Ace Cruz-Herrera is my whole name. One of the biggest stars in the Philippines was Ace Vergel during my mother’s time”), is a bit-part actor turned low-budget movie director specialising in genre films: Fight for Life will be his seventh.
His most recent was 2009’s Outrage: Born in Terror, a thriller about an escaped convict with a sadistic streak who hunts a woman and her friends. It starred Thelma and Louise and Kill Bill’s’ Michael Madsen, Orange is the New Black’s Natasha Lyonne and Cruz himself. With an aggregate rating of 3.4/10 on IMDB and a 17 per cent “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it’s Cruz’s best-received film.
Sokhorn, who did not respond to requests for an interview for this article, is an oknha and adviser to the president of the National Assembly of Cambodia, Heng Samrin.
He is a good friend to have if you want to make films in Cambodia, or do any kind of business – his Facebook page cover photo is a montage showing him with Samrin, former Chinese president Hu Jintao, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and the vice president of Myanmar, Nyan Tun.
As a businessman with strong ties to Vietnam, his interests are wide ranging: import and export, real estate, transportation, construction, tourism, agriculture and, most controversially, rubber production.
In 2013, Global Witness’s Rubber Barons report linked Sokhorn to Vietnamese rubber firm Hoang Anh Gia Lai (HAGL), which the report said was responsible for land grabs in Cambodia and Laos that had “disastrous consequences for local communities and the environment”.
He also has his own 9,000-hectare rubber economic land concession (ELC) inside Ratanakkiri’s Lumphat Wildlife Sanctuary. Residents of the Tompuon minority ethnic group from Samut Leu village near the ELC claim that his company has been “invading” and clearing their land since 2014.
“About 20 to 30 people from the community met [Rat Sokhorn] and his team in person to find a solution but they always reject our proposals,” community leader Tuy Yaeb, 40, told Post Weekend. “When we talked with each other, he didn’t respect our rights. He used strong and loud words against us while claiming that he has licence to use this land.”
Yaeb claimed that the company’s employees even fired a warning shot to scare them off during a confrontation in January.
“We have filed a complaint and hope the provincial court will take action on this issue so that we don’t lose our forests,” he said.
Numerous attempts to reach Sokhorn for this story were unsuccessful.
Disappointingly, no misunderstood rubber barons have found their way into the script for Fight for Life. Instead, the promotion of vovinam is what links Cruz’s film with the okhna’s passions: Sokhorn is vice president of the Vovinam World Federation and chairman of the Cambodian Vovinam Federation.
“It’s one good way to be able to promote the martial arts and the philosophy behind it,” Cruz said.
The film follows a fictional Khmer Rouge survivor in his quest for revenge against the base leader who “made his life hell” as a child. During the film, the protagonist is introduced to vovinam by an American missionary and eventually, through the wisdom he gains from the martial art, learns forgiveness and achieves peace.
“In the philosophy of vovinam, you’re supposed to forgive and forget about the past and live in a positive way,” Cruz said.
He said the philosophy of vovinam, – “defending those in need” – was the main aspect that attracted him to the idea of using it in a film.
“The vovinam spirit [is about] helping others,” he said. “It’s not like one of those martial arts like MMA where it’s all about the ego. This is about the heart and about doing what’s right and doing good for the spiritual awakening of a human being.”
Cruz said that although he had made low-budget, straight-to-DVD films in the past, Fight for Life would be different. “That’s kind of where I’m at in my career,” he said. “I know how to make movies now and I want to make movies that will inspire people and that people will like and become a hit – not just for the DVD market.”
Vovinam: Vietnam’s national martial art
Vovinam was created in the 1930s, synthesising Chinese kung fu and traditional Vietnamese, Japanese and Korean fighting styles by Master Nguyen Loc as a method of self-defence that would be effective after a short period of study.
Nguyen Loc was a strong believer in Vietnamese independence and he hoped training young resistence fighters in the martial art would aid the cause. His motto was: “Live, help others live, and live for others.”
According to Tep Chivaksokhom, coach of the Cambodian vovinam team, vovinam is similar to other martial arts such as karate and taekwondo but with a greater emphasis on kicks.
A signature move is the flying-leg takedown, in which the attacker leaps into the air and wraps their legs around their opponent’s neck to drag them to the floor.
Practitioners are also taught to utilise swords and knives as well as improvised weapons such as sticks and hammers.
“The purpose is not only just fighting but also to protect yourself, family and other people around in the society from guns or other weapons,” Chivaksokhom said. “We also train in vovinam for health.”
Chivaksokhom and several other Cambodian athletes were sent to learn vovinam in 2007 and came back to form the Cambodian Vovinam Federation in 2008.
The Cambodian vovinam team and a small group of younger students train Monday to Friday at Olympic Stadium from 5pm.
He said that he hoped to begin pre-production once the script was approved by Sokhorn in the coming months. He plans to play the Khmer Rouge survivor as an adult himself, and has written the part of the missionary with Michael Madsen in mind, though all casting will depend on actor availability.
“Michael Madsen is a good friend of mine,” he said, adding that the pair had toured the Philippines together to promote Outrage. “I’ve talked to him about it. Once the script is finalised, I’ll give him the script and then he can read his part because I’m writing him in,” Cruz said.
“I also have a relationship with [former world heavyweight boxing champion] Evander Holyfield. So those are the two characters who I have relationships with that I am planning on putting in the film.”
The film will be presented by the Hollywood International Film Academy – which is already running classes in California. The Southeast Asian campuses will offer degree programs with subjects including acting, stunts, screenwriting and more, Cruz said.
“I will be exporting teachers from Hollywood, professionals in the film industry, to be teaching over there in Vietnam and Cambodia,” he said.
The Vietnamese campus will come first. Sokhorn, who is chairman of the academy, has already purchased a large coastal site in Vietnam for the academy and a resort. The Cambodian campus will be developed afterwards.
“Both the film schools in Cambodia and Vietnam will be first class, top of the line film schools like the University of Southern California’s film school,” said Cruz, who attended USC.
When asked whether he knew about Sokhorn’s business dealings in Cambodia’s northeast and how that jarred with vovinam’s spirit of helping others, Cruz said he was unaware of the accusations but would reserve judgement.
“You need to find out the [other] side from Mr Sokhorn,” he said. “I am only involved in the movie business and film academy. I, myself, have been accused of things I never did in the past from people that don’t really know me.”“I will mention it when I see him,” he added.
Additional reporting by Vandy Muong.