Leap is a young boy who lives in a remote mountainous village, the only child of Keala and Prak, the village leader.
One day, the 14-year-old is playing with his friends in the nearby jungle when suddenly, mysterious high-tech robots emerge from the thick foliage. A gunshot goes off, igniting a massacre of villagers.
This dystopian vision of the future sets the stage for Australian director Mark Toia’s Monsters of Man, a sci-fi feature film which was shot mainly in Cambodia four years ago.
According to the film’s synopsis, “a robotics company vying to win a lucrative military contract team up with a corrupt CIA agent to conduct an illegal live field test”.
“They deploy four weaponised prototype robots to a suspected drug manufacturing camp in the Golden Triangle, assuming they’d be killing drug runners that no one would miss. Six doctors on a humanitarian mission witness the brutal slaughter and become prime targets.”
The Golden Triangle depicted in the movie was shot in Tahan village in the Kulen Mountains of Siem Reap province.
The movie features an international cast, and the three family members in the jungle are played by Cambodian actors Ma Rynet, Trong Kam and Ly Ty.
Keala is played by Rynet, 29, who tells The Post that, “in the movie, the main Cambodian actors are my family. My husband and I are divorced and the main star plays my new boyfriend, who is American”.
Toia, a TV commercial producer and advertisement photographer by trade, says that Rynet is an exceptional actress whose natural acting skill made it easy for her to focus totally on her character and not stress about remembering lines.
He tells The Post: “From a director’s standpoint, she made my life so very easy, as any great actor should. She has a scene in the movie that brought the audience to tears.
“She is fantastic and I wouldn’t hesitate to put her in another movie if I was to ever shoot one in Cambodia again.”
Kam, who won the role of the village leader, was first discovered by English travel documentary filmmakers who gave him a chance to make it in the film industry.
Toia says: “We cast a really strong local actor, Trong Kam, who was amazing. He was so powerful in his role as Prak, the village boss. He scared the other actors with his powerful, convincing scenes.”
Ty, who plays the son, had a small role in Angelina Jolie’s movie First They Killed My Father. Local line producer Kulikar Sotho remembered him from that role and helped land him his role in Monsters of Man.
Toia says that “Ly Ty’s performance was so strong and so emotionally powerful that he brought the entire cast and crew to tears”.
Four years in the making
Rynet was surprised when a trailer for the movie was finally released over four years after it was filmed. In the trailer, she’s chased by the weaponised robots (portrayed by actors) as gunshots ring out in the jungle.
“When I saw the trailer, I was surprised because I took part in that movie over four years ago. Unexpectedly, when it came out as the best movie [I’ve acted in], it makes me happy.
“Mark is the best producer ever. He’s skilled as a cinematographer and cameraman. So his movie turned out so well,” says Rynet.
Toia, also a director at Zoom Film & Television, started shooting Monsters of Man in 2016 in four countries. The majority of the scenes are shot in Kampot and Siem Reap provinces and Phnom Penh.
He says that shooting movies is expensive and creating a feature film like Monsters of Man was a very ambitious project. The benefits of shooting in Cambodia were access to unique and amazing locations, affordable costs and lovely, hardworking people.
“The cost savings in accommodation, food and local crew wages made it very appealing for us to look at Cambodia seriously.
“We could not have shot it in Australia at all with our budget, so we had to look at other countries. We did investigate Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam but once we scouted the large cave systems, villages and temples in Cambodia, I was sold.
“Also, if we did not have the local knowledge and support from the wonderful line producer like Sotho and her husband Nick Ray, we probably would not have shot in Cambodia at all,” Toia says.
Rynet, who holds a law degree, says those who watch the movie will notice lines delivered in Khmer as well as English.
“The official language [of the movie] is English. When I talk with my son, I use Khmer and when I communicate with other actors I speak English,” she says.
Rynet gained notoriety for her performances in international films including The Last Reel in 2014, Hanuman in 2015 and this year’s Mekong 2030.
“I got new experiences because international casts are educated in acting school and when I work with them, I learn new things and know how to work with various people,” she says.
Working in international productions, she says, has its benefits.
“Making movies with them is convenient since they respect the schedule. For example, if we are set to finish at 5pm, they are going to end at that time. It is different from our style. We don’t set a specific schedule, we just shoot until we finish which can be difficult,” she says.
“When we work with international actors like in Monsters of Man, we have to be strong and powerful presences in the scenes. We run from the robots, who chase and fire at us.”
She says the realistic robots are played by human actors and then edited with visual effects.
Rynet had to beat out three other actresses for the role of Keala. They were tested by having to perform in a short play, and she says the other actresses were supremely talented.
“I believe I was chosen because I have dark skin like a real Khmer woman living in a rural village. I am not sure how talented I am, but it’s most likely that [I was chosen because] the story suited me,” she says.
One of her favourite parts of the process was playing a mother and offering warm-hearted love to her son in the movie.
Toia says because Cambodia lacks local film crews which meet international standards, he brought over a small specialised team to not only work on the film but to teach local crews as well.
“It was amazing to see everyone adapt and learn as much as they could in a very short timeframe to give us exactly what we required on location. We made some very good friends in Cambodia and they will always have a very special place in my heart,” he says.
Monsters of Man will be released worldwide on December 8, on various online platforms. Since Cambodia is such a small film market, Toia says it’s not on his radar to release the film theatrically.
“We will be doing an online VOD [video on demand] version via iTunes, Amazon, YouTube and Google Play. So people can watch it on those forums. If there is a theatrical cinema chain that wants to show the film in Cambodia, they can reach us at www.monstersofman.movie.
“I promise Monsters of Man is big. It is ambitious,” says Toia, who spent more than six weeks shooting the feature with his cast and crew.
He hinted that he may not be done filming in Cambodia.
“I would shoot in Cambodia again, especially now that I know how it works. Cambodia lends itself to thousands of stories, stories that can be shared internationally. Who knows, we may come back and do a Monsters of Man 2,” he says.