Asian triumphs at the Locarno Film Festival include a first entry from Cambodia
Asian films dominated this year’s Locarno Film Festival, with South Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo winning the top-prize Golden Leopard for “Right Now, Wrong Then”, and a Cambodian film from an emerging Asian-American director marking the country’s debut at the Swiss event.
Sunday brought to an end another interesting year for the Locarno Film Festival, the country’s biggest film event and a world capital of auteur cinema.
While most of the titles screened at Locarno were European, Asian entries won out all down the line.
The jury also recognised Jun Jae-young, awarding him the Best Actor prize for “Right Now, Wrong Then”, which tells the same story twice but with very different outcomes.
The five-hour Japanese drama “Happy Hour” by up-and-coming director Ryusuke Hamaguchi, won Best Actress and Best Script, while “Thithi”, the first feature from Raam Raidy from India, was awarded first prize in the sidebar competition Filmmakers of the Present and also Best First Feature. “Kaili Blues” by China’s Bi Gan also did well, picking up the prize for the Best Emerging Director in the same section.
Another interesting film screened in the Filmmakers of the Present category was “Dream Land”, a Cambodia-US feature directed by Steve Chen, a Chinese-American filmmaker who decided to make his first feature film in Cambodia.
Chen, born and raised in the US by parents who moved there from Taiwan, visited Cambodia for the first time in 2009. He was working as an architect at the time but was desperate for time away from the drawing board.
“I wanted to get away from my desk job as an architect,” says Chen, “and so I came to Cambodia to research the country’s buildings constructed between the 1950s and the ’70s, which blend modern architecture with Cambodian elements.
“There’s not a lot known about the architecture of that period and I went there to see if I could film something for a documentary about that era.
“It was the first time I had been to Southeast Asia and after that I made a couple of trips back. At first I wasn’t sure what I was trying to do. Subconsciously I wanted to get away from the documentary tradition and the more interested I became in what I was seeing around me, the more I found myself moving towards a narrative.”
Chen wasn’t a total newcomer to the world of filmmaking, In 2009, during his first trip to Phnom Penh, he met Davy Chou, the French-Cambodia filmmaker and helped him film his documentary feature “Golden Slumbers”.
That, he says, helped enormously when he came to film “Dream Land” in 2012.
Starring Lida Duch, the popular Cambodian model who recently acted in the supernatural thriller “Sbek Kong”, “Dream Land” follows Lida as a young real estate agent, who spends her days selling modern, upscale condos to Cambodia’s rapidly growing middle and upper class. But while her career is successful, the life she shares with her photographer boyfriend Sokun (Sokun Nhem), is going down the tubes and she finds herself thinking of another relationship and another place.
“The story came from my friends, things that I observed and my own experiences,” Chen explains. “There are very few Cambodian films centred on a strong female protagonist and we wanted to make a film that showed the woman’s point of view.”
Unlike the majority of Cambodian films, “Dream Land” looks to the present and the future rather than the country’s cruel past. It portrays the contemporary lives of young people and contrasts the landscape of developing Phnom Penh with the old and rapidly deteriorating constructions of Kep, a French colonial-era resort town.
“I also show Cambodian pop culture, which is everywhere and while it may be cheesy, it’s also the reality. It’s how people feel about their relationships,” says Chen, referring to a scene from the karaoke music video of a Khmer pop song, which reflects Lida’s thoughts.
“Dream Land” will soon play in other festivals and will eventually make its way to the Cambodian screen and perhaps those of other Southeast Asian countries.
“We have a plan to show the film in Cambodia, because Lida Duch and Sokun Nhem are both well known from ‘Sbek Kong’. I think the audience will find it interesting to see them play opposite each other in what is essentially an art-house film,” says Chen, who is planning to direct more films in Cambodia.
He recently took a large step in that direction by launching the Phnom Penh-based film company Anti Archive, which he founded along with the filmmakers Davy Chou and Kavich Neang. It aims to help young Khmer filmmakers produce their own films and get them out and on the international film circuit.