Jake Wachtel makes his feature debut with this imaginative Buddist sci-fi set in Cambodia’s Pnom Penh
Dir. Jake Wachtel. Cambodia, US. 2021. 101 mins
An inventive if conceptually cluttered Cambodian Buddhist sci-fi, Karmalink starts out as a lively kids’ adventure set against a vividly realised near-future Phnom Penh and ends up wrestling with techno-philosophical conundrums and the realm of the infinite. While the first two acts are more engaging and accessible than the third – the picture does get a little bogged down in its effects and ideas – there’s no question that this is an imaginative and original debut from director Jake Wachtel.
As a piece of atmospheric world building, it’s impressive
Developed by Wachtel while he was teaching a year-long course in filmmaking within an underprivileged community in the Cambodian capital, the film deftly balances an authentic depiction of the day-to-day grind of Phnom Penh’s struggling poor with futuristic sci-fi elements. The result is a picture which, while more modestly indie in scope than District 9, shares some of that picture’s eye-catching freshness and intriguing blend of sci fi with social commentary. Following on from its premiere in the opening film slot of Venice Critics’ Week, the picture should enjoy further festival interest and could find a home with an independent streaming platform or specialist distributor. Solid US indie credentials within the crew – the score is by Ariel Marx who most recently worked on Shiva Baby; the lithe cinematography is by Rob Leitzell, who shot Black Bear – might help raise the film’s profile with arthouse audiences.
The neighbourhood in which Leng Heng (Leng Heng Prak) and his multi-generational family live is threatened by developers: a bullet train service to China is being proposed and its route will slice through friendships and families, annihilating homes and shuttering businesses. Leng Heng believes that he holds the key to changing his family’s fortunes. Each night, in vivid dreams, he revisits past lives. And in each subconscious glimpse, there’s a solid gold Buddha statuette which was filched from a temple by one of his past incarnations. Leng Heng is convinced that his dreams are a treasure trail, leading to the hiding place of the statuette; he recruits enterprising orphan street kid Srey Leak (Srey Leak Chhin) to help with the search after she proves her detective mettle by locating his missing flip flop.
The quest is hindered by the fact that, unlike many of the city’s wealthier inhabitants, Leng Heng and Srey Leak are not “augmented” - connected through nano bugs in the bloodstream and a glowing button in the centre of the forehead to a multidimensional virtual world and a seemingly inexhaustible search engine. Fortunately, Srey Leak has light fingers and connections in the underworld.
As a piece of atmospheric world building, it’s impressive. The rundown neighbourhood alleys are dwarfed by the monster towers of a nascent hi tech Asian supercity; the colour palette pulses with neons. But the film’s main assets are the two central performances – Prak and Chhin are non-professional actors recruited from one of Wachtel’s filmmaking classes. Both are engaging enough that we invest in the friendship between the two characters, even if the film’s climactic attempts to hack the wheel of karma don’t quite hold together.
Production company: Next Life Film, LLC
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Producer: Valerie Steinberg
Screenplay: Jake Wachtel, Christopher Larsen
Cinematography: Robert Leitzell
Editor: Harrison Atkins, Stephanie Kaznocha
Production design: Olga Miasnikova
Music: Ariel Marx
Main cast: Leng Heng Prak, Srey Leak Chhin, Sahajak Boonthanakit, Cindy Sirinya Bishop, Sveng Socheata