A film that blends horror, romance and politics, the director of ‘The Forest Whispers’ hopes his upcoming film can appeal to domestic and international audiences
Italian director Jimmy Henderson has been a busy man for the past five years, living in Cambodia and pushing the quality of films featuring Khmer actors and crew. His latest film with Rock Production, “The Forest Whispers,” is set to open in Cambodian theaters this Friday. Movie trailers have already been released, featuring a teasing whisper from the village chief, played by Sisowath Siriwud. “The woman is darkness itself,” he says.
The story revolves around a mysterious woman played by Duch Lida and her arrival to an isolated village which has been suffering from a curse. A cruel commune chief refuses to let the villagers leave and controls them with fear and superstition. One night, the prayers of a spiritual leader are heard by a mighty tree in the forest and a young mute woman appears. She is given seven days to learn the rules of the village, but a series of strange events begin to worry the villagers and have them wondering if this stranger will be their savior or lead them to their deaths.
Researching into mythology and folklore, Henderson spoke with many Khmer elders and asked them about the local spirits. He wanted to retain the essence of nature embodied into human form – traditionally in the form of a woman – as many unexplained events are usually blamed on the female form in both folklore and film. The story follows the classic ‘femme fatale’ motif of blaming women for changes in society.
Previously named “Uninvited,” Henderson renamed the title after another film with a similar title came out this year. “This is between a commercial movie and arthouse film,” Henderson explains. “It has the potential to go to certain festivals, but also have appeal to the local market.”
The process of finding a balance between the two types of films is hard to traverse, Henderson says, adding that he had been looking for the past couple of years and feels he is close to finding the right proportions for a successful Cambodian film. Decisions like keeping the elements of a love story but making editorial cuts on an extreme gore scene of a cow being slaughtered were what Henderson had to make for the $200,000-budgeted film. Henderson admitted that the film’s original length was over three hours and was cut to only 110 minutes.
Shot in Kampot over 32 days, most of the set was shot near the national park with a forest and waterfall. The production team built the set from scratch with straw huts. Henderson tried to keep to the idea of nature and insisted on filming in natural light, keeping watch over the sunrise and sunsets, while building windows to use as much natural light for each shot.
“I always wanted to explore the idea to look into society or a village with its sorrows,” Henderson says. He explained that the village chief, who encloses the villagers to the land and does not allow them to leave, shows the control he has over the villagers through fear and belief of spirits in the forest. This is similar to the idea of the state collaborating with religion to control the people. To Henderson, religion will eventually collide with the state and he wanted to show that catalyst in the movie with the arrival of the stranger.
Returning to his days as a young director in London, Henderson called on his friend and fellow writer Adam Carr to co-write the script.
Carr, who has many views on how politics play on human behavior, was given insight into developing the characters and the story of “The Forest Whispers” as a universal theme. Although the film is a horror story about what happens when nature takes human form, many metaphors and subtexts can be found in the movie. Henderson wanted to play around with the idea of universal politics and corruption.
It can also be a film about sexual awakening or the power of a community, says Henderson. “It’s more love than politics.”
Henderson already had actors who would be playing the characters in mind when he wrote the script. “Hanuman” lead Our Dara and sultry actress Duch Lida were already picked out to play the leads.
Our Dara, traditionally cast for his Bokator fighting skills, was nervous about playing his first non-action role in “The Forest Whispers.”
“It’s a bit hard for me because I usually fight in a movie, but this movie had no fighting, only acting,” Our explains. “My character is the son of a farmer and I feel something for the strange girl that come to our village.”
After finishing six films, the 27-year-old actor from Kampong Cham is still shy about his acting skills, even more so as the film calls for him to play a romantic part. Our admits that even though he has a girlfriend, he spends most of his time around men – being the coach of the Bokator National Team of Cambodia. “This year I’m so busy with Bokator federation,” he says.
He said he trains and fights with mostly men on his team, so he was a bit unfamiliar as how to act in a love scene on camera.
“Jimmy pushed me and trained me,” Our says with his cheeks red.
In line with it’s horror elements, Our says he might be too scared to watch himself playing a romantic in a crowded theater.
“I have never been romantic in a western style.”