Marco (far right) in a scene from the yet-to-be released Viplas.
Marco (far right) in a scene from the yet-to-be released Viplas. Photo supplied

New film Viplas is a tragi-comic look at mental illness in Cambodia

The dark world of mental illness – leavened with doses of laughs and romance – will come to screens across Cambodia next year, bringing to theatres, and eventually living rooms, a topic that has long been neglected in the Kingdom.

The tragicomedy – titled Viplas, or “unstable”, in Khmer, and “Behind The Glass Door” in English – tells the stories of various patients at a public mental health centre, suffering from a range of conditions such as anxiety, bipolar disorder, dissociative identity, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

Their struggles and challenges are told through the character of Marco, a recovering drug addict who pretended to be crazy to get out of prison.

The film will first be released in theatres, then expanded and adapted into a miniseries for television. The project comes from the same production company of the hit movie and TV series Love 2 the Power of 4 (2017) and the TV series Loy 9 (2013-2016).

Sothea Ines, founder and CEO of ComeTogether Films, told Post Weekend that Viplas is inspired by the 1975 American classic One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – an adaptation of a novel starring Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher that won five Oscars and started a conversation about mental health care in the US.

“When we watched that movie, we were stongly impressed and moved by it, and we want to make a movie similar to that,” Ines says. “Our goal in filmmaking is not only to entertain people, but also to draw their attention to serious issues in their society.”

To that end, Ines says, the film will try to strike a balance between comedy and drama to portray the circumstances of patients, as well as the repercussions of mental illness, from discrimination to self-harm.

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The movie/miniseries is set in a public mental health centre. Photo supplied

Growing up in Cambodia, Ines says she saw the mentally ill being discriminated against, often treated with fear, locked away and isolated. Meanwhile, local media and the government, she says, totally ignore the public health issue. “Something really needs to be done,” she says.

Just this week it came to light that funding cuts to the Transcultural Psychosocial Organization (TPO) a local NGO that provides mental health services, will cause it to suspend the bulk of its community mental health operations for more than a year, leading to concerns that the yearlong pause in services could negatively affect Cambodians who rely on TPO for frontline mental health care, particularly in rural areas.

To keep the plot moving along with some TV drama, Viplas will also present a love triangle between the centre’s director, Dr Vuth (played by Phal Povviroth); his colleague Dr Dalis (Hang Mariny); and Marco, the inmate pretending to be crazy.

Ines and co-director/scriptwriter Pich Sophy, who also plays Marco, say they expect the film to be a risky gamble owing to the sensitivity of the issue, and the moral minefield of coupling comedy with serious mental health issues.

“Our success is not defined by the big dollars in the box office, but the extent to which our movie can help the viewers better understand their mental health,” says Sophy.

The production teams spent about four months in the outlining phase, which included consulting from experts from the TPO and Indigo Psychological Services, in order to accurately portray symptoms, causes and treatments of the diseases suffered by the characters.

For Sophy, making the film has also involved the personal challenge of shedding quite a bit of weight to go from his normally pudgy physique to that of a skinny recovering drug addict, but the means justify the ends he says.

“Mental illness does not mean only insanity, but many Cambodian people have the opposite understanding,” he says.

The humour, Sophy and Ines say, is drawn from the characters’ disruption of viewers’ notions of what is “normal” in life and love, which aims to challenge the viewer into reconsidering what mental illness may be.

“We are very careful in making our script, and avoid using slang and inappropriate words like in many of Cambodia’s comedic films, so Viplas may not make you laugh out loud and attract a large number of cinemagoers,” Sophy said. “But we are making something for the sake of the whole society.”

The first large-scale survey on mental health in Cambodia conducted over 2,600 Cambodian respondents by the department of psychology of the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP) in 2012 found that 27.4 percent and 16.7 percent of the respondents experienced symptoms of acute anxiety and depression, respectively, while 2.7 percent showed symptoms of PTSD.

The same report also revealed that 115 of those interviewed reported previously attempting suicide, while 22 respondents said a family member had succeeded in committing suicideKa Sunbaunat, a prominent psychiatrist and the former dean of the University of Health Sciences, says there are many causes for these problems, including prolonged war and genocide, poverty, domestic abuse and a lack of understanding about mental health.

“Many Cambodian people do not understand mental illness, and do not care, while many others are not rich enough to care about it,” he says. “Many of my patients only came to me when they reached the very serious stage of their illnesses.”

In addition to Sophy and Ines, Viplas will be directed by the ComeTogether Films’ in-house directors, with some plot-lines directed by young guest directors from the Cambodian film industry. The rest of the cast of characters will be played by new actors trained by Deependra Gauchan.

“We’re really focusing on pushing the envelope and trying our best to help develop the film industry here by getting more young actors, directors and filmmakers involved in our process,” Ines says.

Viplas/Behind The Glass Door is scheduled to be theatrically released in January next year. The longer version of the film will be broadcast on Cambodian Television Network around March of the same year.