New action film Jailbreak puts local screen-fighting to the test.
Drenched in sweat, Jean-Paul Ly charges with a plastic sword before he is quickly grappled and pinned down with a shoulder lock by his much smaller opponent – female Bokator champion Oum Tharoth. This is not a fight or a martial arts display; Ly and Tharoth are carefully practicing a choreographed fight in a new action film, Jailbreak.
Ly began his film career three years ago, after quitting his pharmaceutical job to pursue a career in acting and stunt work. A lifelong martial artist, he trained in France and found success as a stuntman in London. Now 33, he has reconnected with his Khmer roots and is now training Cambodian martial artists the art of screen fighting.
Ly brings international experience in action films to Cambodia’s burgeoning industry. He worked on the television shows 24:Live Another Day and Street Fighter: Assassin’s Fist, and on movies like Lucy and Marvel’s Dr. Strange. But Ly found the Hollywood scene confining and saw an opportunity to break ground in Cambodia, where screen-fighting knowledge is limited. Near where Ly is sparring are four fellow Bokator practitioners charging at each other and slamming each other onto the foam mats in the karate dojo at Olympic Stadium. Italian director Jimmy Henderson towers over the fighters, filming them with his camera and tweaking each move to suit a different angle.
Fresh from shooting films Forest Whispers and Hanuman, the 32-year-old director has been waiting several months for Ly’s return in order to film Jailbreak, which will begin shooting on Chroy Changvar Peninsula next month. Since moving to Cambodia five years ago, Henderson has been busy filming TV dramas and working with distribution company Westec Media Limited on feature films.
The concept of Jailbreak came about nearly one year and a half ago, after Michael Chai, the head of Westec Media, approached him and film producer Loy Te over the idea he had about a new movie involving a group of fighters.
“It was a very broad concept,” Henderson recalls with a laugh. “We had a brainstorm, all of us, and came up with the idea of setting the movie in a prison. The original concept was to create a certain tension, where you have the feeling of being trapped in a building,” Loy Te says. “Of course, you then have the good guys and the bad guys.” Immediately, they thought of Jean-Paul and rising Bokator fighter Our Dara to play the main action actors.
Jailbreak is about a group of special forces escorting a notorious criminal, Playboy, to the isolated prison of Tiger Island. Veteran actor and notorious charmer, Savin Phillips, will be playing the smooth talking Playboy, who rats out his gang members, the Butterflies. As the only male member of an all female Butterfly gang, the stakes become higher for him and the police as the mission goes awry when the prisoners take over the complex. Both the French special task force and Cambodian police, played by Ly, Dara Our and Tharoth Sam, must work together to escape the prison.
“It’s like a Cambodian Alcatraz,” Te explains, comparing the story to the American blockbuster Con Air. He describes the police force as “The Cambodian Avengers” – “different people with different backgrounds, who don’t work well together in the beginning in communication and fighting style, but through all the challenges they join together to be this kick-ass team that will rid Cambodia from its criminals.”
This is Te’s third feature film in Cambodia. He was born in France but came to Cambodia in 1993, where he completed his schooling. “I was supposed to go back to France to continue my studies and find work, but that’s when the film industry was reopening and starting here,” he says. “So, I grabbed the chance to be a part of the new wave of filmmakers here. So far, no regrets.”
After meeting Henderson at the production of the zombie experimental film Run, and after becoming friends with Ly at the Cambodia International Film Festival four years ago, Te met both men again during the filming of the action flick Hanuman. Ly contacted Te, sending him a demo of himself fighting. Right away, he knew Ly would play a pivotal role in the next action film.
Learning from their experiences while shooting Hanuman in 2015, Henderson and Te wanted to avoid complications, like shooting in 19 different locations in a span of 20 days. “We wanted to contain the project to mostly one location,” Te says. “Away from construction and KTVs, in a place where we can control our environment – so a prison makes sense.”
Jailbreak will be just the second action film, following Hanuman, to be marketed regionally, with screenings in Laos and Thailand planned and possible releases in Indonesia and in Europe.
Te says that cinemas showing foreign movies began opening about five years ago. “It’s safe to say that a good majority of the local films that have been produced since then have been horror films,” he says. “It’s repetitive. Part of our challenge is to bring new content to people and attract them to watch a different type of genre. That’s part of the challenge of helping the film industry grow here, as well as making the audience grow with the industry.”
Jailbreak also showcases local talent and martial arts skills. The crew hopes that it can open the doors for more foreign filmmakers to decide Cambodia is a better place to shoot an action film than in countries like Thailand.
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Vy Tara, a 21-year-old who plays a prison guard in the film, has been doing Bokator since 2009. He used to promote Cambodian martial arts with instructional videos and short films as an ancient practice from the Angkorian period.
He was tired of Bokator being constantly compared to Thailand’s Muay Thai, made famous by actor Tony Jaa in Thai action films. He and the martial artists recruited for the film have created The Bokator Stunt Squad. Although experts in fighting and lethal in the ring, they now must overcome the challenge of performing as action stars in front of the camera.
“Learning how to make a reaction or how to fall visually is still a new thing for me,” says Bokator fighter Our Dara, who has starred in action films Hanuman, Father Treasure, Forest Whisper and Before the Fall. In Jailbreak, the 26-year-old plays a police chief. This week, Dara was still working on adapting martial arts for the camera, especially the reaction to being hit.
“In a fight battle, we don’t think about that, we just aim to beat the person in front of us.”
Actor and stuntman Jean-Paul Ly spars with Bokator practitioner and actress Oum Tharoth at the karate dojo in Olympic Stadium. KT/Fabien Mouret
The Bokator Stunt Squad practice choreography. KT/Fabien Mouret
A Bokator martial artist prepares himself for stunt work. KT/Fabien Mouret