The much-anticipated film telling the story of a derelict cinema hiding dark family secrets is one of the highlights of the fifth annual Cambodian International Film Festival, which runs through next week
In a key scene from Hanuman Films’ The Last Reel, the rebellious young protagonist, Sophoun, breaks into a derelict cinema, where her moto is parked, and discovers the mysterious caretaker watching an old pre-Khmer Rouge film starring her mother.
When she finds out the last reel of the film is missing, she sets out to reshoot it herself, but in the process reveals some of terrible emotional and psychological scars left upon her family by the Khmer Rouge.
British screenwriter Ian Masters, who penned the script, said the central idea for the film came to him after he discovered the similarly neglected Phnom Penh Cinema – on Street 19 across from Norton University – in 2007, which was being used as a moto parking lot at the time.
Masters said he had wanted to deal with inter-generational trauma and the potential for film as a tool for healing while also referencing the Cambodian cinema heritage destroyed by the Khmer Rouge.
“It was basically trying to find a way of accessing Cambodia’s painful history in a way that wasn’t so heavy but something that could be done through the medium of film as an interesting entry point,” Masters said.
Masters said it was appropriate that the film was directed by first-time filmmaker Sotho Kulikar – who had previously mainly worked as a line producer for foreign features and documentaries including, most famously, Tomb Raider – because in many ways, her story was similar to the main character’s.
Speaking at Hanuman Film’s offices, Kulikar said she was initially reluctant to take on the job because she had not been to film school or university.
Over a sleepless night, she weighed up her lack of formal training against her years of practical experience working with crew and actors across film departments – from props to production design to casting and budgeting – along with her passion and understanding of the script.
“The most important job of the director is to know the story and to know how he or she wants to tell it, and I knew how I want to tell the story,” she said.
“So in one night I decided, and the next morning I said, ‘I’ll take it on’.”
Kulikar ended up casting young actress Ma Rynet, who had previously appeared in several Cambodian television series, for the role of the daughter Sophoun because there was “something deep” about her.
They also shared a similar background in that both lost their fathers at a young age; Kulikar’s was killed by the Khmer Rouge when she was three years old.
“I think Ma Rynet is always subconsciously chasing for recognition from a father figure, which is what I’ve been doing all my life,” Kulikar said.
They spent many hours together talking about the story and the character and watching films – in particular Erin Brockovich - to familiarise Rynet with “good acting”.
“What I loved about her was her desire to become the character Sophoun, and as a director to see an actor that has this great desire is everything, because the desire is what leads you and drives you, and she does everything so well.”
The first day of shooting kicked off at 6am at the Tanei Temple in the Angkor Wat complex. The cast and crew were shooting a scene from a film within the film in which a prince comes across a girl in a lotus pond and immediately falls
Kulikar said even though it was a difficult scene – involving the cast, extras and two horses – she wasn’t nervous at all. Everything went “beautifully”.
“Thinking back, it was because I had spent so much time on film sets, the only difference was this time I was in control. And I enjoyed every moment of it.
“It was a very encouraging and beautiful day, and everything just followed on from there.”
While the shooting the film went off almost without a hitch, there were some intensely emotional moments on set.
There was one in particular, in which Sophoun screens the film for her family and her father turns up, that affected Kulikar so deeply she had to take a few moments to gather herself.
“Sophoun looks over and she sees her father and he gives her a big recognition smile … it was every emotional for me, because I think I spent all my life chasing recognition from a father figure that I never had,” she said.
“Subconsciously, I chase that. In the story, Sophoun has it at the end, her father accepts who she is; through his smile, he shows his recognition and how proud he is of her.”