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November 07, 2021

Denver Film Festival - Karmalink


Jake Wachtel - 2021
XYZ Films

I only read fleetingly about Karmalink prior to my viewing. What I knew at that time was that it was Cambodia's first science-fiction film. While watching the film, I felt that the setting of a Third World Southeast Asian country, combined with a near future setting involving science-fiction, and an exploration of past lives, made me think of Mattie Do's The Long Walk. It was at the end of the film that I saw that Ms. Do's husband and artistic partner, Christopher Larsen, co-wrote the screenplay of Karmalink with Wachtel.

In this film, there is a greater use of the science-fiction elements combined with Buddhism. 13 year old Leng Heng has dreams about a small golden statuette of a Buddha, stolen from a temple and buried, perhaps in a tree or a rice field. Dr. Vattanak Sovann has invented a device makes it possible to delve into someone's brain and retrieve the memories of past lives. For the doctor, by understanding the lives one has had in the past is to enable a person to realize enlightenment. Leng Heng's dreams include memories of Dr. Sovann.

Against this story of psychological dislocation is the physical dislocation of Leng Heng and his family. The poor village is on the verge of being torn down as Phnom Penh continually grows and expands, absorbing the surrounding land for urban development. There are a couple of hints about how Cambodians see their place in the world with the announced construction of a bullet train to Beijing, while a small dollar transaction in U.S. dollars is considered worthless. Leng Heng's best friend, the girl Srey Leak, has her own enterprise of dealing with the black market of computer chips obtained through extralegal sources. Heng Leng and Srey Leak initially hope that the retrieval of the golden statuette will bring financial fortune.

Karmalink does bring up several questions regarding some of the philosophical concerns of Buddhism. Dr. Sovann calls his device Connectome. Connect to me. In addition to this device which reads brain waves, there are also small blue button-like devices which project memories. The greater concern though here involves medical ethics as well the understanding that perhaps enlightenment is a concept that is not meant to be clearly defined. (I should note that my own understanding of Buddhism comes from my own practice, and that there is no singular, uniform school of Buddhism.)

Is Karmalink truly a Cambodian film if the primary talent in the production was made up of expats and Westerners? Certainly a debatable subject. This is unlike most Cambodian films made for the local audience, love stories and horror films, made with very low budgets. Unlike many films shot in Cambodia, there is not the exploitation of the country as an exotic location or its people as props. Where I found Karmalink most interesting was in following the lives of its marginalized citizens, and Heng Leng's discovery of the true treasure.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at November 7, 2021 06:17 AM