A book of dreams, teenagers searching for buried treasure and a quest to digitally manufacture spiritual enlightenment constitute the intriguing ingredients of “Karmalink,” a fresh and highly entertaining sci-fi mystery-adventure set in a near-future Phnom Penh. Driven by Buddhist concepts of karma and rebirth, and underscored by commentary on Cambodia’s past, present and potential future, this striking feature debut by U.S. filmmaker Jake Wachtel takes viewers on a fascinating and frequently wondrous expedition to a place where science and metaphysics intersect.
“Karmalink” should enjoy a strong festival run and broad VOD distribution following its world premiere at Venice Critics’ Week. It has theatrical potential, especially in regional markets with substantial Buddhist populations. U.S. and Cambodian release details are yet to be announced.
Phnom Penh might not seem like the obvious setting for science-fiction (indeed, this is the first sci-fi film ever made in Cambodia), but it proves to be an ideal backdrop for a tale that anchors its high-concept premise in centuries-old spiritual beliefs. Some pockets of the rapidly developing city already resemble one of those gleaming new worlds from a sci-fi movie. Minor cgi enhancement of skylines and selected streetscapes, and signs advertising the “Phnom Penh to Beijing Bullet Train” are all that’s required to give the film a convincing futuristic ambience.
There’s a strong retro-future feel to the surroundings of Leng Heng (Leng Heng Prak), a-13 year-old boy from the crowded working class community of Tralop Bek. Along with his sisters and mother (Sveng Socheata), Heng lives with his grandmother (Oum Savem). The elderly woman wears a high-tech headset provided by Dr. Sophia (Cindy Sirinya Bishop), a smiling neuroscientist studying memory loss.
While Leng Heng’s mother leads a protest group resisting forced relocation of Tralop Bek residents to make way for yet more urban development (always a hot-button issue in Phnom Penh), the boy’s most immediate concern is making sense of his dreams and how they relate to his past lives. The object Leng Heng most frequently draws in his book of dream memories is a gold Buddha statue that was stolen and buried by a thief (Ros Mony, aka Rous Mony) many centuries ago.
Like most smart kids in adventure movies, Leng Heng rallies his pals and hatches a plan. All they need to do is follow clues in his dreams and retrieve the valuable artifact, thus providing financial security for their families while Leng Heng gains closer understanding of his previous incarnations. The boys have enthusiasm but lack project management and detective skills.
Answering Leng Heng’s call for help is Srey Leak (Srey Leak Chhith), a clever young orphan known for her ability to find things and trade them for a profit. After negotiating highly favorable financial terms for herself, Srey Leak marshals the plan and the lads with delightful, no-nonsense authority. In a beautiful little moment that says so much about the film’s Buddhist outlook, Srey Leak tells Leng Heng’s mother she’s helping him to “sort out his past lives” in the same matter-of-fact way that kids elsewhere might talk about doing math homework together.
As the treasure hunt gathers pace, the screenplay by Wachtel and Christopher Sean Larsen gradually increases the prevalence and importance of traditional sci-fi elements. Part of the youngsters’ investigations involve “nanobugs,” small electronic devices which attach to the forehead like a third eye and allow users to see into dreams and experience convincing augmented reality. “These augmented hipsters are ruining everything,” Srey Leak complains.
Most important is the emergence of Dr. Vattanak Sovann (Sahajak Boonthanakit), a brilliant neuroscientist who escaped his homeland during U.S. bombings in the 1970s. Glimpsed earlier with his body hooked up to a bank of electronic instruments, Dr. Sovann is playing an increasingly important role in Leng Heng’s dreams and appears to have a connection with Dr. Sophia’s research.
At this point “Karmalink” becomes a magical spiritual mystery tour, with Leng Heng’s dreams intensifying and characters such as the statue thief reappearing in different guises, and also in the boy’s present-time reality. With expert cutting by editors Harrison Atkins and Stephanie Kaznocha, it’s easy to make sense of everything, even as the narrative leaps about in time, dreams criss-cross with reality and Dr. Sovann’s quest to synthesize spiritual enlightenment comes into focus. Adding to the mystery is the question of whether Dr. Sovann is alive, dead or somewhere in-between.
No knowledge of Buddhism is required to connect emotionally with the young protagonists or be engaged by film’s thoughtful commentary on universal themes such as the gap between rich and poor, the potential dangers of artificial intelligence and the clash between materialism and spirituality. The many years Wachtel spent living in Cambodia and developing this film has paid off handsomely. He captures the essence of life in an economically disadvantaged community without ever indulging in poverty porn, and elicits marvelously natural performances from his lead actors who were both students in a film class he taught. The film’s shining emotional heart is the friendship and camaraderie that grows between Srey Leak and Leng Heng during their grand adventure.
Terrific use is made of locations, including train tracks and rusty old carriages abandoned near Phnom Penh’s recently restored and re-activated railway station. Best of all is the setting of key sequences in the city’s National Olympic Stadium complex. A masterpiece designed by revered architect Vann Molyvann, the venue hosted glorious events during Cambodia’s 1960s “Golden Age” and was the scene of appalling horrors during the 1975-79 rule of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime.
Nicely shot by Robert Leitzell with earthy tones in street scenes and a cooler palette for sequences involving Dr. Sovann, “Karmalink” is very well served by Ariel Marx’s score, which features zippy, rapid-fire rhythms in early sections and moves to moody, sculptured metallic sounds as the story’s AI-related components come to the fore.
Tragically, young star Leng Heng Prak has since passed away. End credits note that “Karmalink” is in loving memory of him.