Cambodians Find Struggles in Making Movie

pha-av village, Cheung Prey district, Kompong Cham province- Ham Sotheanith looked splendid, from the raven hair cascading down his back to the leather sandals that laced up his bare legs.

Despite the heat, despite the dust and despite the sweat pouring down his neck from underneath the hot wig, he was a happy man.

Ham Sotheanith is the star of “Dek Chou Damden,” an action-fantasy movie now being filmed about one of Cambodia’s great heroes of folklore.

The 29-year-old actor portrays Commander Damden, a figure similar to Luke Skywalker, an action hero from the US film Star Wars, who learns martial arts and magic from a mysterious hermit, and then uses those powers to unite the kingdoms of Cambo­dia and Siam, known these days as Thailand.

“I remember this story from school,” he said, taking a break in the shade as the next scene was organized, next to an old-fashioned wooden house that served as the district governor’s home in the film.

Damden, Ham Sotheanith said, “is a hero because he sacrificed for his country.”

The story is a good one for young people to learn, he said. “I think the next generation will cherish this film in their lives.”

Director Sak Sythorn certainly hopes so. Since January, he has been struggling to bring the epic story to the screen, begging friends and acquaintances for money, scouting locations, renting elephants, getting the details of dress and weaponry right.

Of course, if he were being strictly accurate, the entire cast would be practically naked, as the action dates from a period when people wore as little as possible.

“But in the movie, the actors are dressed, because we cannot have them acting without clothes,” he says. And in fact they are dressed gorgeously, with the women in jewels and silks and the troops a blaze of color.

Sak Sythorn is making the film as spectacular as his $100,000 budget allows. “I love action movies,” he says. “This will have plenty of action.”

It is a convoluted tale of love and war, bravery and magic, in which three brothers are separated as babies. The fact that the three are born from eggs, rather than in the usual manner, hintsThen, in 1990, a pro-democracy uprising forced Mahendra’s son, the Harvard-educated King Birendra, to accept a constitutional monarchy, similar to Britain’s, with a Parliament and a potentially powerful prime minister.  But the years of democracy have been marked by a cavalcade of elected governments, most of them the product of unlikely alliances cobbled together only to fall apart. Corruption has been a hallmark of this political instability.

that these are no ordinary boys.

One grows up to be King of Cambodia; one, the King of Siam; the third is Damden, the warrior-hero.

Unaware that they are brothers, they meet in battle, where  Damden is instrumental in revealing the truth. “The story is important because it shows the Khmer people and the Thai people are brothers,” Sak Sythorn said.

“Dek Chou Damden” marks Sak Sythorn’s debut as director, although he helped produce last year’s “Blood Stone,” a Ministry of Information production that graphically depicted the awful things that can happen to people who loot Cambodia’s temples.

The biggest technical challenge so far was the big battle scene, shot at Phnom Baseth, northwest of Phnom Penh. Sak Sythorn wanted to rent 10 elephants, but, at $75 per day per elephant, could only afford two.

But with 1,000 actors and 100 horses, not to mention bright  pennants whipping in the breeze, warriors in full regalia and a thrilling story to tell, those two elephants should be plenty.

Money has been a constant worry. “I would love to find a sponsor to help me finish the film,” he said. Once the major scenes are shot, there are still the special effects to worry about: without revealing the plot, somebody important gets turned to stone.

The film is offering jobs to famous Cambodian actors as well as neophytes. Som Durin, who portrays the district governor, began acting in films in 1956 and has appeared in more than 100.

After putting in a few tough minutes trying to convince a balky horse to go where it was supposed to, Som Durin took a breather to talk. Even a bad day as an actor, he said, beats the job he was forced to do during the Khmer Rouge regime: turning manure into fertilizer.

“I’m enjoying being in this movie,” he said. His character the governor “is a real nationalist. I hope that the movie will be a big hit.”

“Dek Chou Damden” is star Ham Sotheanith’s 20th movie, but it is the first ever for Sam Kanady, 21. He portrays a Thai soldier, earning $5 per day for days that can stretch well into the night.

“We don’t have any set schedule,” he says, leaning on his prop bow. “We started today at 8 am, and I don’t know how late we’ll go tonight,” when a night battle was planned.

“I know that we’ll be staying here overnight,” he says cheerfully. “I don’t care. I want to do more.”

Sak Sythorn seems laid back for a film director, taking all sorts of minor calamities in stride. He’s had actors falling off horses and a leading lady tipped out of her ornate chair by inexperienced bearers, but so far no injuries.

The actors, too, seem upbeat, despite enduring a double dose of the midday sun: the real thing beating down from above, and its heat shining off foil reflectors that direct extra light to their faces.

“Dek Chou Damden” should be done in two months, and if it is a success, Sak Sythorn says he has big plans for future movies: the story of Jayavarman VII, the last great king of Angkor and an epic about the Four Military Commanders of Angkor Wat.

He would also like to make “Phum Derechhan,” or Cruel Village, about an uprising in Kompong Chhnang during the French colonial period, in which Cambodian rebels killed a French official.

“China makes many historical films, and people love them,” he says. “So far, Cambodia has not.”

 

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