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The International Writers Magazine
: Martial Arts Movies in Cambodia

Cambodian Director Preserving Khmer Culture,
Through Martial Arts Movies
Antonio Graceffo

All morning people kept asking me if I had heard of E Pho Thong. Of course I had. Everyone in South East Asia knew the name of the Khmer boxing champion and world kickboxing champion. But having heard of him was a far cry from having him leap up, and crash down on the top of my skull with his elbow. Effortlessly, he flew through the air, his huge, muscular frame, like a cruise missile, intent on killing me. I jumped out of the way at last instant, and caught a reprimand from director, Ouk Haiseila.
"Don't move out of the way until AFTER he hits you.” he said.
I was surprised at how calm he was. This was the thirtieth take, and at least twenty-nine of the those mistakes were mine. I gave E Pho Thong an apologetic look, hoping he wouldn't decide to hit me for real. But E Pho Thoung just laughed. In the process of killing each other all morning, I had discovered that he was one of the nicest people I had ever met. He knew how to handle his success, and how to be tolerant of someone who had never done a kung fu movie before. Ouk Heiseila was also patient with me. But he still made us do the scene ten more times. "I just want it to look good." He said.

It was a toss up as to which fact was more surprising: that I was in a Kung Fu movie, that I was working with E Pho Thong, that I had just discovered that I was the first foreigner ever in an action movie in Cambodia, or that I had been in Cambodia less than twenty-four hours.

I had originally contacted Ouk Heiseila, vice president of the Cambodian Martial Arts Games Committee, and one of the most respected trainers in the country, to ask him if I could come to Cambodia, follow him around, and train with him, as part of my research for a book on Khmer martial arts. This was to have been the fourth in a series, including one on training at the Shaolin Temple, in China, one on training with the Taiwanese national Kung Fu team, and one on training at the last remaining kick boxing temple in Thailand. "You can come this weekend." Said Seila. "We are filming a movie." He failed to mention that I was going to be thoroughly trounced by one of the best fighters in the world. I also had no idea of the depth of his movie projects.
"Because of the political situation in the past, Khmer martial art almost died out." Explained Seila, referring to the decades long war in Cambodia.
"After the liberation, we found only a few, very old masters and brought them to Phnom Penh to work as teachers."

The Cambodians have a strong national identity. And they are very proud of their Khmer heritage, an advanced, ancient culture, which predates civilization in other parts of the world. For many Khmers, two of the most powerful images of Khmer culture are Anchor Wat and Khmer martial arts. "We want the young generation to know what is Khmer culture." Said Seila.
"But if we write a book, not too many of them are interested in reading."

Instead of making a documentary, Seila's film, "Kra Bey Lak Kon," or "Buffalo Protecting a Child," is an action packed story, with a good versus evil theme. Martial arts instructor, and full time English teacher, Ros Attra plays the leading villain in the film. Like Seila, he is dedicated to preserving Khmer culture, and exposing young people, both Khmer and foreign, to the beauty of this ancient tradition. "We made an exciting story, which attracts the people. And, it is easy for them to follow." Explained Ros Attra.

Making movies is hard work. You have to do a scene over and over again. (a fighter gets 410 (local currency) per day of filming and nothing for practicing.) For my fight scene with E Pho Thong, I had to rehearse my moves for several hours. Next, the two of us had to rehearse together. When two heavy weight fighters start throwing kicks and punches at one another, there is always the danger of someone getting hit. Actually, I think there was more concern for my well being than for E Pho Thong's. Although Seila spoke excellent English, there were often miscommunications, as they would discuss changing a scene, but forget to translate for me. Or, they would tell me in English, but forget to tell E Pho Thong. Although the champion can't speak much English, his Thai is quite good; from the large amount of time he has spent fighting in Bangkok. So, we were able to communicate in that language. But, as is inevitable. There were times when one of us zigged, when he should have zagged. Luckily, there were no injuries, and we both just laughed it off.

After the rehearsal, we began shooting. And once again, the moves had to be repeated and repeated. One of my moves was that I had to kick over E Pho Thoung's head. I lost count at about fifty kicks. The total time we spent filming this fight scene was about four hours. Afterwards, I was completely done in. Luckily for the rest of the day, I just played a corpse, lying on the ground, while E Pho Thong fought with Ros Attra. In addition to being impressed at what a friendly guy E Pho Thoung was, I couldn't believe how much energy he had. During the course of a single, very long day of shooting, he filmed three separate fight scenes, with three different opponents. Two of the scenes involved jumping off of a platform, hitting the ground, and rolling. He never once complained when Seila asked him to do it again. He just brushed himself off, hopped on the platform, and did it again.

Bruce Lee often talked about how hard it was for him to go from real fighting to movie fighting. Bruce's style emphasized low kicks and minimal movement. His signature strike was a one-inch punch. He realized that while his style was perfect for real fighting, it was boring on film. So, he developed his world famous, movie fighting techniques, with high, spinning kicks, big punches and flashier movement. Apparently, E Pho Thoung had some difficulty making the transition to movie fighting, as well.
"He is a boxer.” Said Seila. "If you fight him in a ring, he could kill you. But this is a movie. We had to teach him Khmer kung fu, because it looks better on film." The Khmer art which is world famous, is the professional kickboxing, of which E Pho Thong is a champion. In fact, the Khmers maintain that Thailand's Muay Thai was actually invented in Cambodia. Many Khmers have told me. "The Thai's stole our art." But the art, which Seila most wishes to preserve and to showcase, is Khmer kung fu. This is an ancient, very complete martial art, which involves, kicks, punches, knees, elbows, forms, and routines. It looks very similar to Chinese Kung Fu, although experts say that Khmer kung fu developed independent of the Shaolin Temple. Seila went on to say that E Pho Thong was a phenomenal student, and that he was making the transition surprisingly well. I agreed with him.

But I also felt that Seila and Ross Attra were great teachers. They kept all of the film's fighters in line, and kept the action interesting. While we were preparing, Seila or Attra would spot a mistake all the way across the field, although they were busy with a million other details. They would run over and correct us.

Film budgets in Cambodia are considerably less than what they would be in the US, with films costing as little as $20,000. This meant that actors had to do their own stunts, and that Seila, was director, producer, writer, and fight choreographer. In addition to playing a leading role, Attra helped with choreography and collaborated with Seila on writing and editing. Seila told me, "In the west, actors are paid to study Kung fu." Keanue Reeves has studied movie kung fu for years. Charlies Angels learned their art from the same instructor. And, Matt Damon spent months studying the Philippine Art of Kali, to prepare him for his role in The Bourne Identity.
"But in Cambodia, the film companies feel that actors should only be paid for acting." Said Seila. "So there is no way for us to teach them Kung fu. They all have to keep a full time job to support themselves."

For this reason, Seila converts his kung fu students into actors, instead of the other way around. Jackie Chan always said that Hollywood could learn a lot from Asian studios. He felt that making movies with no money was the real art. In the films, which Jackie produces, he combines his Asian experience with Western money, and produces a wonderful finished product, for a fraction of what Hollywood films normally cost. The special effects in a Cambodian film are simple. Rather than purchasing expensive "break-away" clubs, they saw through a real club, add some baby powder, and then re-attach the two ends. When the club is broken over someone's back, there is an impressive puff of powder.

Later, sound technicians, Seila and Attra, will add a special effects noise, and the scene will look and sound dramatic. When a character is run through with a spear, the end of the spear is sawed off, and affixed to a harness, which the actor straps to his back. Now it appears that the spear has gone through his body.
Apparently blank rounds and movie guns were also considered unnecessary playthings of the rich. The guns used in the movie were real. Blanks were made by removing the lead from the end of the bullet, then driving the bullet into a tree, carefully, with a hammer. When the bullet was removed from the tree, it was full of wood. When fired, there was a loud explosive noise, lots of smoke, and just a little bit of burnt, wooden shrapnel. Being both journalist and actor, it was often difficult for me to know where to stand. Wanting to get a good shot of the blood that sprayed out of a squib device, when one of the actors was shot, I was splattered with movie blood.
I wouldn't normally taste a strange chemical, but the aroma was too inviting. The blood turned out to be berry juice! Seeing what the Khmers could achieve with absolutely nothing made me feel like a spoiled rich kid. "We have the best fighters in the world." Said Seila. "But we don't have the money. The best would be if we could collaborate with film companies from Hong Kong or America. Actors and laborers cost almost nothing here. The land is cheap. There are beautiful jungles to film in. We just don't have the technology or the distribution."

"Buffalo Protecting a Child" is Seila's fifth film. He plans to do two sequels, and dreams of having a partnership with a foreign film company.
"All they would have to do is send me one camera man, one technician, and money, and I could provide everything else." Wanting to help support Khmer culture, I made an offer to Seila. "If Hollywood is willing to pay for your next movie, I'd be willing to act in it." Seila smiled. "Let's get the money first. Then we can worry about your career."

© Antonio Graceffo June 2004
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Antonio's book about his studies at the Shaolin Temple, "The Monk From Brooklyn," has been accepted by GOM Publishing, and will be available in 2004. His book, "The Desert of Death on Three Wheels" is currently under review for publication, in 2004. His book, "Adventures in Formosa," will be published in Taiwan, in June of 2004.

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