Breaking away from the chain of destiny.
Even in the modern age, where our eyes are fixated on the latest technological developments and always looking ahead, there are some traditions and beliefs that we just can’t leave behind in the past. For the highly religious nations in Southeast Asia, the Buddhist concepts of karma and reincarnation still remain at the back of its citizens’ minds, and according to Jake Wachtel’s Karmalink, will continue even into the future.
Pitched as the first science fiction film from Cambodia, Karmalink takes place in Cambodia in the not so distant future, in a tiny village on the outskirts of a metropolis city. Drones flit about in the sky, but the main, subtle sci-fi element isn’t apparent until a quarter through the show, where we’re introduced to how citizens are fitted with electronic implements, allowing them to record what they see, or enter an alternate reality online.
The science fiction elements then, really aren’t the focus of Karmalink, but the religious ones. Our film opens on a mystic note, as a young man picks out a gold Buddha statue from a temple, dashing off into the night when discovered, and burying it in the ground. It turns out it’s all a dream, from the mind of young Leng Heng (Leng Heng Prak), who is convinced it’s a memory from his past life.
Increasingly obsessed with the dream, Leng Heng quickly convinces his motley crew of friends to join him on a treasure hunt, along with recruiting plucky scavenger Srey Leak (Srey Leak Chhith), a self-proclaimed detective who’s also financially down on her luck. For most of the first half of the film, Karmalink is almost Ghibli-esque in its depiction of these teenage treasure hunters, with Leng Heng recalling more and more of his past lives and seemingly, leading them ever-closer to the treasure, while Srey Leak grows closer and more invested in the mystery of his memory.
It is the actors’ air of innocence that wins us over as they embark on this quest with all seriousness, and we can’t help but root for their success every step of the way. In particular, it is the growing closeness between Leng Heng and Srey Leak that keeps us emotionally attached to these kids; Srey Leak’s stone heart and frostiness melts away to genuine human warmth and no longer does this out of mercenary goals, instead actually caring for Leng Heng and putting her life on the line to save him.
Even as a white, non-Cambodian director, Jake Wachtel is careful to respect the country he’s filming in, and all its traditions to keep the film as authentic as possible. There is almost a documentary-like vibe as we watch the kids flag down a tuk tuk, or sit in a magnificent temple, dwarfed by the giant Buddhas looming down on them, and one is left in awe of how expansive Cambodia’s landscapes can be. And though the film does eventually reveal its Buddhist leanings, attempting to unravel the key to enlightenment, it does so in a way that ties in perfectly to the initial idea of dreams, past lives, and tech that makes complete sense.
Beyond its landscape and religious concerns, Karmalink also raises issues of exploitation of the poor, where the divide between Leng Heng and Srey Leak’s families are contrasted to the relative wealth of the scientists coming by to experiment on them, and the politicians preaching progress. As much as Srey Leak’s interactions and banter with her dealers are humorous, it is heartbreaking to see her have to sneak into clubs to sell cigarettes just to get by, while Leng Heng’s family is driven 15 kilometres outside of the city for the sake of further development.
What seals Karmalink as a triumph of Cambodian cinema is how it never outright answers the questions it pitches, yet in an almost zen-like treatment of life, considers how destiny always finds a way, and some things are better off left as a mystery for humans to continue pursuing all their lives. We may end the film with our protagonists not much better off than they were at the beginning, yet through their adventures, seem to have emerged spiritually lifted and more assured that through a strange mix of fate and fortune, everything that is meant to be, will be.
Karmalink screens on 30th November 2021 at Golden Village Grand (Great World City). Tickets available here
SGIFF 2021 runs from 25th November to 5th December 2021. For more information about the SGIFF, visit their website here