One of Hanuman Films’ first co-productions, Om Tuk is already drawing critical acclaim and interest thanks to the success of Amiel Courtin-Wilson’s Hail. Read this interview on Om Tuk from the Peril Blog in Australia.
Hail and Momentum (copyright Peril 2013)
“Filmmakers Amiel Courtin-Wilson and Michael Cody have a busy few months ahead of them. Their first feature film together Hail, directed by Amiel and produced by Michael, has just started its run of single cinema releases into most Australian capital cities. Buoyed by a growing list of rave reviews, including being picked the stand out Australian feature by film critic Adrian Martin in The Monthly, as well as winning the Age Critics Award for best Australian feature at the Melbourne International Film Festival, Hail is generating the kind of excitement for Australian cinema last seen by David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom.
In the midst of this, the two are preparing to return to Cambodia in January to complete shooting their second feature together, this time as co-directors, on a film that had appeared almost intact over a breakneck couple of months in late 2011. Om Tuk, a Cambodian language film set primarily in Phnom Penh, materialised on what was initially supposed to be a scouting mission following Hail’s premier at the Venice Film Festival. In Phnom Penh they mentioned to local producer Kulikar Sotho, who runs a production company called Hanuman Films, that they wanted to develop a film. Kulikar surprised them by offering her support with the film’s infrastructure and financing.
In what Amiel calls ‘an exercise in sheer will and momentum’, they immediately began to simultaneously research, cast and write the film, developing a 20-page scene breakdown. The story is in essence, ‘ A love story, road movie between young Cambodians who have both escaped situations of respective urban adversity. They come together and there is an inexplicable attraction between the two of them. After an accidental murder they set about travelling up the Mekong River to Angkor Wat and along the way there’s a series of increasingly metaphysical encounters,’ says Amiel.
Using a similar working method to the one they used for Hail, Amiel and Michael worked extensively with the two lead actors, developing their characters around their own personal experiences. In the first week of November 2011, a small film crew arrived from Australia and over 21 days shot 85% of the film, in the knowledge that they would need to return and complete it later, with rewrites based on the initial footage.
Can you describe what making a Cambodian language film was like, not speaking Khmer yourselves?
We were conscious of what had come before in terms of the few western-based productions that have been set in Cambodia. There’s this quite problematic fetishising of the exotic and the other. For that reason we were really conscious of being open in the dialogue that we had with the two lead actors and enabling them to contribute in a really meaningful fashion.
The film was written kind of playing to the strengths that we knew we had, in as much as the film was predominantly filmed at night around the streets of Phnom Penh and there isn’t a lot of dialogue, so we wrote the piece based on knowing we were trying to tell a story as visually as possible.
Were there things you were aware of in order to keep a Cambodian authenticity?
Totally. I think the biggest thing that we grappled with culturally in terms of making sure it was authentic was just the nature of a Cambodian love story and just how chaste they are as a culture. In a sense, because you’re also dealing with two characters coming out the other side of a traumatic past, in many ways the love story is extraordinarily gentle, almost erring on the platonic in terms of how it evolves. That was very much based on research that we did in terms of the physicality of young Cambodians in love, I suppose, whether that’s in physical displays of affection, how that plays out behind closed doors.
Cody and I found that it was actually a hugely liberating thing to work in another language solely because there’s a purity in how you gauge any given performance based on the sheer physicality and the behavioural and the gestural facets of any given scene. So you’re actually able to cut through the noise of language, especially when something’s improvisational and just works on the truth of body language.
The big thing about Om Tuk in general is there has been such a focus on Cambodia for its more, in crass terms, poverty porn or the more sensationalist elements of the culture, be it child prostitution or drugs or human trafficking. We wanted to not shy away from that stuff but focus on what happens when two young modern day Cambodians transcend that environment.
What it was like working in Cambodia, for yourself and the Australian crew?
What was amazing about shooting in a documentary fashion but shooting drama, as opposed to in a western setting, people still aren’t inured to seeing a film crew, so it meant that you could get really amazingly authentic and really intimate scenes without people becoming self conscious or performing for the camera.
In terms of the sheer logistics it was extraordinarily chaotic. We had a crew of about four or five, a camera van, a translator and occasionally an assistant of two. What that meant was you were pretty much able to shoot in real locations, into places that you would otherwise never be able to access in a western country. We were filming in brothels and in some quite disreputable establishments.
Om Tuk is now a co-production between Hanuman Films and Flood Projects, the production company formed by Amiel in 2008, with he, Michael Cody and Kulikar Sotho producers. The film has already attracted the interest of an American sales agent to handle the US release, with the team keen to get an Australian distributor on board for its planned premier in mid-2013.”