The first Cambodian woman to direct a film since the 1970s, Kulikar Sotho garnered critical acclaim with her 2014 feature, The Last Reel. The fearless filmmaker is committed to telling Cambodian stories but refuses to be pigeonholed by her country’s past
Words by Holly Robertson Photography by Thomas Cristofoletti
A Japanese man stands on a bridge in faraway Cambodia, the haunting melody of his lost love’s voice washing over him. Having returned to the country where he fell for a woman named Mealea in the 1970s, Fukuda hopes to reclaim her heart after an absence spanning two decades, only to find that she has died. The tragedy of this thwarted cross-border love is the central story in Beyond the Bridge, the latest film from acclaimed Cambodian director Kulikar Sotho.
If the emotions feel real, it’s because they are. As with her debut film, The Last Reel, Sotho drew on her own experiences to tell the fictional tale, incorporating the suffering her mother has felt since losing her husband during the Khmer Rouge era. “In many ways, the survivor carries an even deeper weight, a bigger weight than the person who is gone,” said Sotho.
“For so many years, I never knew [anything] about my father. And [my mother] decided to tell me after The Last Reel. She said to me that for my father, who is gone, his suffering is also gone. She is surviving and she is surrounded by everything that is the legacy of their love.
“That I built into the relationship between Mealea and Fukuda. And he was a beautiful actor; he portrayed it very well. The moment he stands on the bridge, I feel that emotion, that weight on him.”
Sotho, 43, got her start as a translator and fixer for Lonely Planet TV in 1999, but her first taste of the film world was on the set of Tomb Raider, a 2001 Hollywood production starring Angelina Jolie, which was partly filmed at the temples of Angkor in Siem Reap. As a line producer, Sotho’s position was focused on logistics and administration. But it was the creative side that captivated her interest.
“I was very fascinated when I was on the film set, seeing how the director worked with actors, how he controlled everything from his monitors, how the cinematographers worked, and how the art department created this amazing set. And I just feel like it was a beautiful transformation… To read the script on the paper and to see it being transformed onto the set and being shot – I just felt, like, amazing,” she said.
“And then, when I was invited to the premiere in Los Angeles, the film opened with Cambodia, and I was so emotional seeing Cambodia on the big screen, because Cambodia is such a forgotten country by the world. To see it on a big international stage, it was just… I felt like I wanted to do something for my country at that moment.”
She then worked on a series of documentaries, most of which explored the Khmer Rouge period. Watching foreign filmmakers framing Cambodian stories from an outsider’s perspective was a further prompt to try her own hand at the cinematic craft.
“You know, for them, it is information for the world – there is no story attachment to them… because it’s not their story. So I felt like I wanted to tell the Cambodian story from [the point of view of] an insider – from the voice, from the inner voice [of someone] who lived with the legacy [of the Khmer Rouge]. And that was the moment that I decided I would do a film about Cambodia.”
Sotho’s ability to weave the deeply personal into her films has been, perhaps, what has made them so memorable for audiences. Her debut film, The Last Reel, follows a young girl, Sophoun, who discovers that her mother starred in a film during Cambodia’s ‘Golden Age’ of cinema, which saw hundreds of films made in the 1960s and early 1970s. On finding out that the last reel of the film is missing, Sophoun decides to finish the film herself – hoping to heal her family in the process.
“Through her love for her mother, [she was] driven to complete the film. And, in many ways, it is the love that I have for my mother that leads me, that gives me this determination to make the film,” Sotho said of the similarities between herself and the central character.
“Emotionally, it is very much based on my family. Situationally, it is the situation of all Cambodians. I can’t say it is just my own family, because every Cambodian has more or less the same scars that we have and experiences we are struggling to get through, to come out of it.”
The film was critically acclaimed and toured the international festival circuit, picking up several prizes along the way, including the Spirit of Asia award at the 2014 Tokyo International Film Festival.
Sotho was born in Phnom Penh in 1973, just two years before the communist Khmer Rouge emptied the capital of people as part of their dystopian vision for a classless, agrarian-based society. And the Pol Pot era has – as for many Cambodians – cast something of a shadow over Sotho’s life.
While not dealing directly with the period in her films, it has never been far from the narrative. And although she believes it is important to have conversations about that time – both in art and in life – she is adamant that it should not serve to define a country that rose from the great Angkor Empire, which at its height stretched across much of modern day Thailand, Laos and southern Vietnam.
“A lot of Cambodians, especially the younger generation, they do not pay much attention to the history of their own country, of their own family. And I think if we don’t pay attention to our own history, the danger is that we can lose our identity because we don’t know who we were and where we came from.
“I don’t think we should only focus on the Khmer Rouge history; I think we should also look beyond the Khmer Rouge history as well,” she added. “There were many centuries of glorious time. We should just use the Khmer Rouge, the dark time, to make us even stronger – to rise above it.”
Which is exactly what Sotho is doing.