Billed as Cambodia’s first ever blockbuster, Sbek Gong promises CG fireworks and a star-studded cast of the country’s top actors. Names like Nhem Sokun, Un Sethea and Nhem Sokun may mean little to us, but this film, written and directed by Pol Vibo, is big business across the border, opening to sell-out crowds around the country. As one of the few Cambodian films to screen in Thailand, our expectations were high (if a little hesitant). But as the opening sequence alone demonstrates, this is a movie that’s unsure whether it’s an action-comedy, fantasy or even a martial arts flick.
The action takes place around 35 years ago in the deep forests of Kulen Mountain, during the dark days of the Khmer Rouge regime. Don’t expect much beautiful scenery, though, as Sbek Gong puts the action first and its characters front and center. The story follows a group of male students deep in training to become invincible under their strong, supernaturally gifted master. The training is rigorous and only two of the eight, the obviously-good Sakada and the obviously-bad Nopul, survive. They then turn on one another after falling for the same girl, Kravan, who just so happens to be their master’s daughter. After the Buddha amulet-bearing master’s sudden death, the fight really begins, and even continues into the next life—cue lots of arbitrary jumps between time periods, as the film drowns in its own plot.
Along the way there are some straightforward jokes that may elicit a chuckle, but little in the way of character development, especially in regards to protagonist Sakada. A note here: at the time of writing, the film was only screening as a Thai dubbed version, which didn’t seem to be entirely in keeping with the original. It certainly didn’t help with authenticity.
Although it is intriguing to see some aspects of Cambodian culture, including black magic, get screen-time, more modern elements like a CG lion and computer-animated cloud look unsophisticated and entirely unconvincing. The plot also falls largely flat, switching perspectives between the two warriors throughout. The romance is tepid (bar one bizarre near-rape scene). The final nail in the coffin comes in the film’s last quarter, when the focus is solely on the antagonist Nopul, making the whole thing terribly unbalanced. Sbek Gong is a spectacle; easy to watch, if nothing else. You might get some cheap laughs (often not for the intended reason), but little else.
Monday, October 20, 2014