Mittapheap district, Sihanoukville – Nonchalantly puffing a cigarette, the hero, blonde and scruffy, stands on a patch of pebbly red earth.
Despite the stifling heat, he coolly offers a nip of alcohol to the beautiful heroine as they bandy back and forth in Russian—not too bad for a man standing on a landmine.
And while the ultimate solution for saving the protagonist’s life and limbs-dig a pit, tackle the unlucky hero into it, hope for the best—might not be endorsed by the Cambodian Mine Action Center or Halo, it does provide a jolt of action in the upcoming Russian movie “Season of Rain,” which recently wrapped its on location filming in Cambodia.
The low budget action-drama follows the fictional ordeal of a Russian man who comes to Cambodia inspired by the life of his grandfather, a former World War II pilot who fled to Kampot province in the 1940s. Once here, the hero, played by Aleksei Serebryakov, and a French archaeologist, portrayed by Russian actress Ksenia Rappaport, get entangled in a dangerous hunt for a solid gold statue of Buddha.
The movie—which is being touted as the first Russian feature film to be shot in Cambodia—is the brainchild of director Sergey Debizhev, who said recently that he had wanted to return to Cambodia after having previously filmed a documentary here for the St Petersburg-based Documentary Film Studio.
“Before we made a series of documentaries in Italy, Jerusalem, Morocco, Thailand and Cambodia,” he said. “But Cambodia has impressed us so deeply that I made up my mind to write the feature we are shooting.”
For “Season of Rain,” Debizhev’s crew filmed for about a month at locations around Sihanoukville, Siem Reap town and on top of Bokor mountain in Kampot. Additional shooting was done in St Petersburg and Paris. Andrey Mayover, the film’s production manager, estimated the total budget of the movie at around $1.5 million.
Debizhev said that the experience he had filming in Cambodia had been very positive, adding that he would be happy to come back to do more filming in the future.
“There are so many plots around, and life here always changes,” he said.
In this, Debizhev appears to not be alone.
Kong Kantara, director of the Ministry of Culture’s cinema department, said six or seven foreign feature films and documentaries have been shot in Cambodia.
These include 2002’s “City of Ghosts” directed by US actor Matt Dillon and the 2004 French-made “Two Brothers,” featuring a pair of lost tiger cubs.
Kong Kantara said a French feature film, tentatively titled “The Blockade of the Pacific,” is currently in pre-production on location in Sihanoukville’s Ream National Park. He added that the crew is building traditional Khmer-style wooden homes for the movie, which will begin filming in October.
Three television networks from Australia, Malaysia and Italy have also recently been given approval to film documentaries, Kong Kantara said.
Filmmakers are attracted to Cambodia because of the varied and interesting locations it has to offer, and because it is cheaper to get licenses to film in Cambodia than in other countries, Kong Kantara said.
“We have a policy to attract foreign movie makers to film here by not taking fees,” he said. “As long as [filmmakers] come, our people will benefit from job hirings or selling goods to those people.”
Sharon Soldner, project manager for Jung Kyung Co, Ltd, a South Korean-owned consulting firm that assisted with the “Season of Rain” shoot, said that interest in shooting in Cambodia has increased ever since the filming of the 2001 action-adventure movie “Tomb Raider,” starring US actress Angelina Jolie.
“It’s definitely starting thanks to ‘Tomb Raider,’ and I can definitely see a lot more coming in,” said Soldner, who is based out of Siem Reap town.
If nothing else, “Tomb Raider” led to equipment needed for film shoots—like mobile toilet facilities—finally being available in Cambodia, she said.
“If there was an acting school and a studio…it would be perfect,” Soldner added.
Kong Kantara said that the government is working to provide both those things. He said that his ministry is seeking funds to build a studio for both local and foreign filmmakers.
He added that the ministry and the South Korean government are planning to create a film school for actors, which he hopes will be constructed in Phnom Penh next year.
“[Cambodian] actors need to be trained how to act in a natural manner,” he said. “You must believe when they are pretending in Hollywood movies.”
But for Debizhev, the comparative inexperience of his Cambodian actors, who handle a few minor roles, was not a problem.
“They performed perfectly,” he said, adding that he was able to communicate his ideas to the actors because one of them had studied in Russia.
Mayover said that a large number of Cambodians speak Russian—a legacy of Cambodia’s relationship with the Soviet Union in the 1980s—which made things easy for the filmmakers.
But despite all the positives, the filmmakers said that filming in Cambodia did present one obstacle: the weather.
Debizhev said the heat was a huge issue, particularly getting Russian actors and crewmembers to handle filming all day under a tropical sun.
“The people that have never been in such places before [have trouble],” he said. “We get the impression that we are walking through a solid wall of hot air.”
While filming the landmine scene near Sihanoukville’s Kbal Chhay waterfall, the effects of the heat were obvious on the film’s stars. Makeup artists dashed in between takes to wipe off the sweat pouring down the actors’ faces, applying liberal sprays of Evian bottled water to keep them cool.
The weather conditions, particularly the humidity, also took a toll on the crew’s equipment.
“In such a high humidity as here, all the devices have broken,” Debizhev said, noting that the crew’s main camera had broken down, forcing them to use an antiquated backup to continue filming.
But these problems may pale to a weather-based issue that goes right to the title of the movie: a surprising lack of precipitation while filming a movie called “Season of Rain.”
When asked if the title will be changed, Debizhev chuckled.
“We are thinking about it,” he said.