If you were to look up images of the coastal city of Sihanoukville in Cambodia, you would stumble upon shots of a stunning beach that has slowly been overtaken by high-rise buildings. This small fishing area has become more and more westernised in recent years and given directors and co-writers Alexandre Do and Lo Xu-Ming Tong real-life inspiration for what would eventually turn into the short film Aniccam.
The duo both have ties with Sihanoukville and are of Cambodian descent, so to work on a film that celebrates their culture was something of a no brainer. But, it was actually Alex’s experience of being stopped by a police officer in the country and the slow realisation that he and his brother were being robbed that was the catalyst to form this narrative.
The short film centres around one young construction worker's escape in the dead of night, a suitcase and the idealism of what it means to chase and be chased. Here LBB’s Natasha Patel caught up with Alexandre and Ming to hear about making Aniccam and how they feel now that it’s been premiered.
LBB> When did you first decide that you wanted to make Aniccam?
Alex> I’ve been wanting to make a film in Cambodia since the first time I went back in 2010. It took me until 2018 to not see myself as a tourist anymore. Having been there numerous times and having friends and family that live there, I knew I wanted it to make a film that explored its contemporary issues.
Ming> Like Alex, I’ve always had the desire to make films in my parent’s home countries. But being freelancers jumping from gig to gig, the actual possibility and timing of it was always very tedious. So when Alex sent me this script and he happened to take kindly to my suggestions, I thought Aniccam would be a good place to start.
LBB> What was the writing process like? How did you organise all of your ideas and thoughts into the final script?
Alex> The whole film was built around a single scene: It was inspired by an interaction with my brother years ago in Cambodia, when a police officer stopped us in the middle of nowhere. After half an hour of bogus car inspections, we finally realised what was actually happening. We were being robbed. The feeling of threat and being powerless was the main inspiration behind the main scene of the film.
I wrote a first draft and sent it to Ming for feedback. He came back with some suggestions that I really liked. I wanted to integrate a lot of it so he basically had a writer’s credit at that point.
Ming> I thought about it for a week before asking him if I could co-direct it since neither of us had ever done anything like that. But since we’ve been good friends for a while and he had already given me a screenplay credit, it made the decision a lot more natural. (A couple of days later I was on a plane to Cambodia. Even jumping straight into a van for location scouting after 23 hours of traveling felt good. Exhausting but good.)
LBB> I know you both have ties to Cambodia and the Khmer regime, but on an emotional level how did it feel to make this film?
Alex> Living my whole life in France and the UK, I didn’t feel like I had the right to make the film in Cambodia. We had to do thorough research and fact checks with the help of the crew and local friends, to make sure that we were making something believable and not exoticised. Making the film helped me reconnect with my Khmer roots and realise that there are many more stories to be told in Cambodia.
Ming> I have similar feelings having lived in Canada and the UK. It’s an odd position of privilege to be in but which also comes with its responsibilities. One of the most fun aspects of making this film was that by doing so I was also learning more about my heritage. Filmmaking and learning about my own heritage are two elements that have rarely coincided but it’s an absolute pleasure when it does. It’s also encouraged me to make more films in Cambodia.
LBB> What made you choose a suitcase as the main motif for this film?
Ming> Symbolically, a suitcase does have rather strong connotations narrative wise.
Alex> It started as a simple plot device. As we kept it in the script, we realised we could make it into something more significant and revealing of the current Khmer psyche.
LBB> There is a lot of intrigue with this film, most notably the ending. What was your plan? Did you choose to create a suspense film?
Ming> We did realise very quickly we were basically making a film noir and that that in itself was a rather liberating factor and opened up the possibilities to move away from it rather than stay in it.
Alex> We managed to make it our own by playing with the audience’s expectations of the genre we set up in the beginning.
LBB> Tell us about the theme of 'chasing' in this film?
Alex> It’s in our DNA to hunt or be hunted. On the surface, our characters are after a suitcase that might be full of money but really, it is about a country exploiting its people to the point that no one is okay.
Ming> Everyone is chasing a way out. A better life.
LBB> What key moments from the production process stood out to you the most?
Alex> Our DP Laura led the local camera and G&E teams with so much confidence that she became an instant role model for the local female crew (ADs, PM, wardrobe and art director, MUA). They exclaimed that they’ve never seen a female DP before. Our 1st AD Mio confided that she wanted to become a DP like Laura. When Ming went back to Cambodia for some reshoots without Laura and I, we decided to give Mio the chance to shine.
Ming> Yeah that was a pretty cool moment. I think another learning curve was learning to direct through translators as well which were Mio and Rachna, our ADs. That was new and challenging and most definitely formative for future experiences.
Alex> It taught us to adapt our direction to each actor as they all had different acting backgrounds.
Ming> To be fair there were so many stand-out moments, like the apparition of puppies on a break on the last day of shooting.
Alex> Also the constant thumb-sized bugs sneaking under our shirts and flying into our mouths every time we spoke.
LBB> How have people reacted to it and more importantly how do you both feel now that it's out there?
Alex> A lot of people loved the mood of the film which we worked really hard for. I have seen the film close to a thousand times from editing, grading, sound edit, VFX, music and mixing. When I saw the final version on a big 4k screen, I felt the emotions we wanted to convey. It made me feel so proud to have been able to achieve this challenging project.
Ming> I feel really happy with and proud of the film. It’s a bit hard sometimes to take a step back since like Alex has said, we’ve seen it close to a thousand times at this point. The main praise has been going to the mood, the cinematography and the casting so it’s been a really great reception.