It’s not about Pol Pot, or the Killing Fields, or land mines, or poverty. It’s not about the Khmer Rouge or corruption or any of the grim narratives that form the basis of most accounts of Cambodia.
It’s a film and it’s about love. A young Asian crew is in town right now making I Have Loved, set in Siem Reap with an international flair. It’s a reflection of contemporary Cambodia seen through the cosmopolitan lens that Siem Reap in particular provides. The movie was conceived and written – and is being financed, co-produced and directed – by a young couple that met at university in Singapore. They came to Cambodia on holiday two years ago and were astonished, they say, by the many ways in which the reality didn’t match up to the rhetoric. From that three-week trip came the idea to create a film that shows Cambodia as the background not just for stories of despair, but also for tales of love and hope.
The story, set in Siem Reap over a number of years, opens with the honeymoon of a young couple from England. However, while on holiday he disappears and her innocence is progressively tested as she searches for him. She returns again and again, challenging her memory each time of what was seen and experienced before, and it is during this time that she meets an Asian man with whom love soon blossoms.
One of the driving forces behind the movie is Elizabeth Wijaya from Malaysia, who is just finalising her English literature Masters at the University of Singapore, where she met her boyfriend and project partner, Weijie Lai, when they were both still undergraduates.
He has just finished his Master of Fine Arts at New York University. They have both worked on short films before, together and separately, but this is the first time either of them has worked on a full-length feature film.
“Our lead actor has more experience than we do,” a relaxed Elizabeth says with a smile. “But, we’re learning a lot from him. It’s a part of our strength, that we are flexible and willing to take risks.”
The couple is financing the film out of their own pockets and relying on the kindness of supporters, including the crew who are only being paid allowances, to make it happen. It’s easy to see what has drawn people to support this young couple. They’re smart, brave and energetic, and their idea is very attractive. The support has come from a number of places, too: from Ambré in Phnom Penh, which is providing all of the costumes for free, to the Hotel de la Paix, which is the backdrop for much of the story and is supporting the film creators’ and actors’ accommodation. Additional support comes from 8 Rooms Guesthouse, which is providing the crew’s accommodation.
The choice of Siem Reap as a location is fundamental to how the film works. The couple was impressed by the internationalism of this town, which is reflected in both the story and the crew itself, which has members from South Korea, Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia and the UK.
Elizabeth says, “We were amazed when we got here that there was so much more to Cambodia than all the bad stories. That inspired us to make a film that showed the different sides of Cambodia. That you can have romance here, too.
“Siem Reap is like an extra actor in the film. It struck us that this was a place quite different from what we imagined.”
The international nature of the town, with its tourists, restaurants and shops, was fundamental to the idea of the film as much as for providing the canvas. “It changes so much, and it’s different every time we come back,” says Elizabeth.
Sometimes this can be tricky. One scene was due to be filmed at the street market, until Wiejie came back again earlier this year to discover that the market was no longer there. “We’ve been working on it for two years, going back and forth, and the changes that we’ve seen are reflected in the film, too. It’s part of the nature of Cambodia and of the film,” says Elizabeth.
Filming will continue for another two weeks. The hope is to have post-production completed in time for the Cambodian Film Festival in October this year and then for submission to the Cannes Film Festival for 2011.