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Interview with Director Davy Chou, director of Cambodia 2099 Clermont-Ferrand Film Festival

Friday 6 February 2015, by Clotilde Couturier

Cambodia 2099 is a French production, or rather co-production. In your opinion, what does the French film industry offer that others don’t, as far as short films are concerned?

My group, Vycky Films, which I put together with my friends Jacky Goldberg and Sylvain Decouvelaere, produced the film, so for us, French funding was a matter of course. Outside of that, and more generally, having a French producer or co-producer obviously gives you access to multiple and exceptional sources of financing. But that’s true for features as well. By exceptional I mean that there is no other country with such a developed system of assistance for making films. (I often talk about this with filmmakers from other countries, especially from South East Asia, who often end up having to finance their films themselves.) For Cambodia 2099 for example, we financed the shoot with a very small budget of our own money, then when we showed the edited cut, we were able to get short film financing from the Seine-Saint-Denis department for post-production, which enabled us to finish the film.

After the introduction, the first scene of Cambodia 2099 shows a Cambodian landscape where the colours are a shade of pastel. Is that a natural effect, or did you work on the image to get that effect? And if so, what technique did you use?

In conjunction with the timer, Christophe Legendre, and the director of photography, Thomas Favel, we tried hard to find that texture for the images, very shiny, almost liquid, and the colours which actually are highly saturated, while also being soft and "cotonny". We were aiming at two effects: images in manga and in video games such as GTA – something virtual, digital and colourful. The idea was to give shape to the way the characters in the film perceive their surroundings. As for the technical aspect, I’m not a timer, but I seem to recall that we got this effect by pushing the saturation to the extreme, along with strong contour effects and work on the noises, then we we made everything softer…

In the same vein, your characters wear very colourful, distinctive clothes. Light is also very present. Zhang Yimou uses colours to represent the different periods or the different points of view of a single story. Do you attach any particular importance to the chromatic construction of your films?

I wanted something very simple at all levels, but also very colourful. The primary colours for the characters’ clothes came naturally and it was pretty unintentional, but when I saw the rushes, I thought it added a bit of a Bioman feel (with the character Sotha becoming a sort of red Bioman for the poor at the end…). As for the light, yes, we wanted to sink into the night step by step, and also to play stylistically very different scenes in this way, both with regard to the shots and the image, like different levels of perception of the world for the characters. And as they go deeper into the night, the sound (engineered by Vincent Villa) also becomes stranger and stranger, stifled and artificial, as if you were slowly burrowing into the dreams and desires of the three characters. For me, light is an emotional interpretation. The scene on the motorcycle is at dusk, embodying feelings of transience, departure, the end of something. The night then becomes black, but the multicoloured, abstract headlights dancing behind the characters’ faces are like a ballet of their internal, unexpressed feelings. Anyway, that’s how I see it.

In Cambodia 2099, you tell the story of two people. The first is a handsome, slightly quick-tongued lad, while the second is more the awkward silent type. Did you envision your actors as a Francis Veber-style duo?

Absolutely not. I’m afraid I don’t know Veber’s films very well! But I appreciate the comment since I think I wanted to make a comedy, even if people don’t seem to laugh too much when they watch the film. I actually took my inspiration from the personalities of the two actors themselves, who are very good friends (and not professional actors at all: Kavich is a filmmaker and Sotha is a painter), and it’s true that I saw solid material for the beginning of a fiction film in the contrast between them. But in order to write their roles, I swiped a lot of things, like the exchange about spelling “want”, or the joke about “free wifi” regarding the elections…

The two teenagers are intimately connected, and yet they grow in different spaces: one in the present reality, and the other in a world of virtual fantasy. Couldn’t they be seen as two facets of the same man?

It’s true that Sotha seems disconnected from reality, but the two of them still have a common trait in their desire to escape, in their desire for something else, which nevertheless takes different forms. In the film, the element that highlights their opposition and complementarity is in their relationship to time: one dreams of a distant, almost magical future, while the other is haunted by the memory of a worrying past. But even in this, they have a common trait, namely the impossibility for them of living totally in the present moment.

One of your characters prepares to leave the country, in the hopes of finding some “elsewhere”. Are the desire to travel and the subsequent quest to explore, things that you’ve experienced?

I hadn’t thought of it in those terms, since I was primarily inspired by the story of a cousin I met in Cambodia. He had been waiting for three years to get the papers necessary to join his mother and sisters in Alaska (!), where he eventually became a cook, leaving behind his father and older brother. My cousin definitely had that strange feeling of waiting and total uncertainty about the future, combined with a precise dream (leaving for the United States) that I found gripping and that influenced how I wrote the character of Kavich. On a personal level, I’ve never thought of leaving France. When I left to go live in Cambodia for the first time (in 2009, in order to conduct research for Le Sommeil d’or), I was quite simply and perhaps a bit naively excited about the idea of discovering an unknown country.

In Cambodia 2099, the scooter holds a particular place. Are you more attached to the romanticism of this mode of transport, to the feeling of freedom that speed elicits, or to the rebellious nature of bikers?

Motorcycles move very slowly in Cambodia – you can see that in the bike scene in the film!

And it’s also the number one means of transportation in Cambodia, so there’s not really a rebellious dimension. While filming people riding their motorcycles will always work well in movies, I think that what interested me here was both the sensation of sliding – like time inexorably and peacefully slipping away –, the incredible vitality that pours out of this group of bikes of every colour, the impression of immobility with all these bikes absurdly going round and round under the illusion of making progress.

Your film is set in Cambodia and attests to suffering that accompanies the inability to feel tied to ones roots. Did you explore this feeling of a lack of roots as a parallel to a country whose history was erased by the Pol Pot regime?

I’m not sure about roots, but it’s true that I sometimes get the feeling that people of all kinds, but especially young people, have a kind of amnesia here, which intrigues me and which I wanted to explore in the film. That perhaps troubling way of rushing toward the future to get away from the past, which also makes the idea of great beginnings possible. But I think that at bottom the feeling in the film is something very universal, like the difficulty of being in step with the times, the need for projection and the mix of excitement and anxiety with respect to the future.

Any message or comments?


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