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Debts, lies, despair: Khmer drama shows greed’s modern face

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Promotional poster for Huy Yaleng’s film Covid-19 Life Crisis. SUPPLIED

Debts, lies, despair: Khmer drama shows greed’s modern face

Sitting under a soft light, a woman on a mobile phone screen holds a bunch of phony dollar bills as she confidently shout at both nobody and everybody at once about a skin-whitening lotion she’s trying to sell to her livestream viewers.

“My dears, if this lotion doesn’t lighten and brighten your skin you can throw it back in my face,” she says with an enthusiasm bordering on desperation as she tries to convince potential buyers.

These sorts of sales pitches are commonly heard on social media these days from the hordes of scheming online salespeople hawking beauty products to anyone who will watch and listen.

“Hurry up and get some! If this lotion wasn’t effective, then how would I have made all of this money?” the woman asks, though her dreams of being a millionaire are likely still far off – unless there are actually millionaires who shout about skin scream on Facebook all day instead of just hiring somebody else to do it for them.

In a separate livestream session, her husband – who has his hair slicked back and wears business suits – is preaching to his followers about how to get rich.

“Jack Ma is a Chinese millionaire. He once said that if you always stay on land, you’ll never learn to swim. The same applies here. If you don’t make investments like buying land, then how can you learn how to earn money? You’ve got to get your feet wet,” he says.

A crowd of young wannabe real estate tycoons chant “I can do it! I’ll become a millionaire!”

There’s nothing wrong with dreaming big, but the fraudulent business practices and obvious hucksterism employed by these online beauty product sellers and real estate promoters are more likely to give nightmares to anyone who follows their advice.

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Actors Yem Sreypich (left) and Huy Yaleng at the premiere of Covid-19 Life Crisis on May 19. SUPPLIED

Covid-19 Life Crisis is a fictionalised story that touches on this real world dilemma. In the film – which is about a couple pursuing their dreams to become millionaires – the family briefly gets rich but messes up their fortunes with greed, lies and false promises. Their lives take further unexpected twists and turns exacerbated by the global pandemic situation as well.

The film stars Yem Srey Pich as the female lead and executive producer Huy Yaleng has cast himself in the lead male role.

“The reason I produced this film was partly as a response to the unprecedented global crisis of Covid-19 that everyone has been dealing with since 2019 and though it seems to be coming to an end, I don’t think we should forget it,” the 43-year-old actor, director and producer tells The Post. “I really wanted to make this film almost as a historical note so the next generation will remember how Cambodia battled and overcame the Covid crisis.”

Rather than covering the numerous and broad range of issues that were happening during the pandemic, Yaleng chose to focus on two recent booming trends in the Kingdom – online sales and property investments because much of the activity involved with both is deceitful, fraudulent and difficult to regulate.

“With support from the public for my previous dramatic film Fathers, which was based on a true story about a desperate Cyclo driver who struggles with fatherhood and life inside the bustling city of Phnom Penh, I wanted to make another film based on real life stories.

“The story is drawn from true life stories of different people, including friends and acquaintances in the online selling and real estate sectors. And these are problems that many people are aware of and are talking about or have encountered directly or indirectly during the pandemic,” he says.

The 130-minute feature is acted in the Khmer-language and will run with dual-subtitles in both Chinese and English. It was produced by Yaleng’s own Kakthachey Films.

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Sreypich and Yaleng on-set between takes while filming Covid-19 Life Crisis. SUPPLIED

“Recently the big trend in Khmer cinema was ghost or horror films aimed at a youth audience, which are entertaining but they don’t really leave much lasting impact with audiences or teach them anything about life, but I want young people to gain something by watching my movies and to reflect personally on what they’ve just seen,” he says.

Yaleng says they decided to add Chinese subtitles partly because of the growing Chinese audience for movies in Cambodia but also as a gesture of appreciation for one of the stars and producers of the film, who is Chinese.

“I would like to express my heartfelt thank to the Royal Government of Cambodia that allowed the opening of the cinemas and movie production to resume in full force. The industry at this stage does need support from the government in order to develop,” Yaleng says.

Yaleng admits that even with some investors and resources at his disposal, he still faced some financial and distribution challenges. The production of the film itself cost around $70,000 with another $10,000 spent on marketing and promotion. Tiny amounts compared to most Hollywood budgets, but a considerable investment for any film made here in Cambodia.

“For me as a film producer, the pandemic was emptying my pockets. I had ongoing expenses but no revenues coming in from new films. To keep making films, I had no other option but to borrow money from the bank to support the production costs. And when we did that, we didn’t really know when the cinemas would be reopening. It’s taking a big risk – if the film is a flop, our company could go bankrupt.

“Another challenge is we cannot physically bring the film to screen it overseas, though we are going to virtually join some film festivals in China, the US and Malaysia and at the end of 2022 around October or November I’ll bring Covid-19 Life Crisis for a screening in Busan, South Korea,” Yaleng says.

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Greed turns to grief in a scene featuring Yaleng in the film Covid-19 Life Crisis. SUPPLIED

Yaleng – who in the past has produced and starred in ghost and horror movies – says that he’s done with that genre for now and he revealed that his next project will be a dramatic film with an underlying lesson about life, even if the potential profits from films like that are less than that of ghost stories.

“I want more people to watch these kinds of serious movies, so they don’t think that Khmer cinema is nothing but horror movies. We can do something else that is better and more original than just another scary movie,” he says.

Yaleng – who is often the screenwriter, director, producer and star of his own movies – also urges local production companies to build a relationship with the Cambodia Department of Cinema as a step forward towards having their worked screened at international film festivals.

“To broaden our opportunities to showcase our work, our production quality should be recognised by our Cambodia Department of Cinema. They can evaluate our scripts and judge our work’s quality to determine if we’re ready for international film festivals,” he says.

The Banteay Meanchey born producer has screened his previous films in Thailand, Laos, Brunei, Malaysia, China, Hong Kong, France and the US, but his greatest ambition is just to see Cambodian people come to watch locally-made movies together at the Kingdom’s cinemas as big happy families.

“I really want to see Khmer families enjoy Khmer movies together, number one. But if we also want Khmer movies to gain greater glory here in Asia and then get the attention of studios and distributors in Hollywood, we all must work together with our fellow producers and directors in the industry here and together with our audiences, we can fulfil that dream,” Yaleng says.

Covid-19 Life Crisis premiered on May 19 and is still being screened at Legend Cinema, Major Cineplex by Smart and Prime Cineplex Cambodia.

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