With a French actor and actress in the leading roles and a script inspired by the famous Hungarian composition Gloomy Sunday (also known as the Hungarian Suicide Song), one Cambodian film director has invested huge resources and time into producing a high quality local movie that he hopes will earn the Kingdom’s cinema long missing acclaim on the international stage.
Hailing from Kampong Thom province, Leak Lyda is a self-taught film producer and director that has been in the entertainment industry for more than a decade, producing films spanning the horror, romance and comedy genres.
But his new film project is far different from what he has done in the past, significantly expanding in terms of budget, story, screen writing, casting, editing and marketing.
The 37-year-old director, who was elected as a Motion Picture Association of Cambodia (MPAC) deputy head in December last year, tells The Post about how he reached this point: “In 2011, I directed and produced a local hit called Ab Wears a Helmet. The film was very famous and helped contribute to the revival of Cambodian cinema.”
The movie – which is based on Khmer folklore of a ghost that has only a head and exposed organs with no body – resonated with many Cambodian people, particularly the young, who enjoyed its mix of slapstick humour and romance in a ghost film setting.
Due to the great success of this movie, Lyda, who runs his own production company, LD Picture Productions, has furthered local demand for films straddling the ghost, romance and comedy genres.
But having now produced many films and television dramas popular in the Cambodian market for nearly a decade, Lyda now has aspirations to breakthrough into the international market, while returning Khmer cinema to its halcyon days when its films were screened across many Asian countries.
“This year, I am directing a film called The Clock: Spirit Awakening with 10 times the budget of my previous films in the hope of bringing this sweat and blood project to the foreign market,” he says.
To reach his goal, he says that he is being meticulous about everything in the film being produced to the highest standard. Besides the internationally focused script and high quality filming equipment he is using, Lyda has also selected young aspiring French actors to play the lead roles.
“It took me nearly four months of auditioning to select Charlotte Van Hollebeke as the lead actress to play the role of Julie – a French woman who committed suicide due to mental illness. Her death was thought to be associated with the 1940s Hungarian song Gloomy Sunday that is infamous in the West as a sad song that causes people to end their life,” Lyda says.
This is Van Hollebeke’s film debut, and she has had to overcome the scorching Cambodian sun, language barriers and cultural differences in the making of the film.
The office-employee-turned-actress recently wrote on her personal Facebook page: “So excited about this new adventure! Thank you Lyda Pic Pro and Mao Legacy Agency to give me that chance to be part of this film. The actress life begins.”
The remaining supporting roles are played by local actors and actresses, with the majority of the pre and post-production done by Cambodians, with some input by foreign film experts.
As MPAC deputy head, Lyda also hopes the film’s international outlook will be of benefit to the local cast and crew working on the film.
“I hope this Khmer movie can bring all my staff and Khmer movies to international market at the same time,” he says.
The Clock: Spirit Awakening tells the story of a French woman who commits suicide during the colonial period in Cambodia around 1945. Many of the movie’s scenes will be filmed in Phnom Penh’s remaining colonial buildings, and will feature many vintage props that are hard to find in Cambodia.
Following a year of writing and polishing the screenplay, the big challenges are yet to come in the film’s production – which began just a few weeks ago.
“My face must look worried. This is how a Khmer movie director like me is feeling on set right now.
“The first challenge is working under budgetry pressures, but I cannot compromise on quality if I want to succeed on the international market. The budget is only $200,000 – this makes it very challenging to do a scene per day and also post-production,” Lyda says, standing on set as he films one of the scenes.
Lyda says he is confident that his film has special features that are capable of captivating both local and international audiences.
“There are three important points that make me believe this film can be a success on the international market. First, we’ve produced a script we hope will prove appealing to an international market, as it is based on the famous Hungarian Suicide Song.
Second, our technical equipment is high end and comparable to Hollywood standards. Thirdly, the post production will be helped by local and international industry experts,” he says.
The Clock: Spirit Awakening will be in dubbed in French with English subtitles. Lyda has not yet revealed a cinema release date, but he said it will take about a year to shoot and finish post-production before it is ready to be screened.