Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

"This film bears strange and delightful fruit without affecting its sweetness, its surprise." | Photo: Robert Leitzell/Courtesy of Glasgow Film Festival

The machinery upon the red carpet recalls Bacon's triptych, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. I was minded of them having seen Second Version of Triptych 1944 (1988) at the Royal Academy earlier this year. I was minded of them because those paintings appear in Memory: The Origins Of Alien, and Never Look Away also known as Work Without Author. I was minded of them because recursion, religion, repetition are embedded in Karmalink.

Described in some places as Cambodia's first science fiction film, Karmalink is an astonishing piece of work that perfectly captures a set of ideas and presents them to powerful effect. I adored it, from that first stark set piece of equipment on a carpeted auditorium incarnadine. The glow of wires like the spark of lightsabres painted on film directly, lost like tears in the rain falling on Citizen Kane.

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There are small details of world building that recall the much larger and more expensive efforts of films like Elysium and Blade Runner 2049 and Inception and more. Minds attempting synchrony is at once of Pacific Rim and 2001. I will highlight the production design of Olga Miasnikova who has provided objects that look like they have the feel of the real, even if their uses are such that things are "operating beyond human constraints."

Our two main protagonists are cast near enough under their own name, Srey Leak (Chhith) is a young detective, her investigations at the behest of Leng Heng (Prak) who has visions of his past lives. The demands on young actors can often be complex but their performances are convincing, compelling. That Prak has since passed away (the film is dedicated to his memory) adds a depth to proceedings in light of its subject.

Leng Heng recalls his past lives. These are, the four (and five and six) of them, played by Ros Mony, as thief, farmer, photographer, among others. We start with a torch, illuminating a golden Buddha in a sea of ceramic, a shining synecdoche that we will see again. We will recognise those eyes, and we are not alone.

Throughout, detail that rewards looking, casually. Skylines of neon just on the edge of focus because it is not important that they be seen but that they be there. A further bullet-train buckle of belt and road, a force driving people from their homes. Progress, one upgrade at a time. QR code tattoos and simultaneous language translation, documentation before colonial ravages, the smoke from the B-52s of Operation Menu, cuts of bitcoin from salvaged hard-drives, mesh suits and augmentable wallpapers.

There is a story among the Jataka tales of the Buddha of a Monkey King, anxious not to waste the water for the garden he had been given charge of. Pull the plants up, he said, and give more water to the ones with longer roots. To measure is not always as destructive, but the challenge here is to tell you that this film bears strange and delightful fruit without affecting its sweetness, its surprise.

Shadows on a door, a torch in the darkness, things buried, planted, lost, left. Ethical problems, an intersection of faith and futurity. Questions about authenticity might be raised but there are answers within the text.

Director Jake Wachtel's first feature, he filmed a short (also in Cambodia) several years ago called The Foreigner Here. Co-writer Christopher Larsen has similar history, including a 2019 film where a road accident's ghost allows a Laotian man to return in time to a moment of tragedy. There are colonial questions within the film, the photographer is cataloguing items before they are taken to France. Within and around the temple those lives circle, there are in certain visions neon mandala as haloes around the Buddhas but to reiterate is to risk revelation.

Ariel Marx's score has sometimes metallic synths, the transitional from the traditional, the electronic and the eclectic. It works as well as Carpenter's for The Thing, a thing of itself but blending and hiding among proceedings.

There are details everywhere, delightful. "Cambodia is not at war", and we see it not there in different ages, with different eyes, and again. A Japanese e-commerce firm on the kit of a club in La Liga, a 19 hour flight in yellow shirt and shorts. By then it will have become vintage, rescued from an eviction. Differently un-modern what might be a Rolleiflex or some other with a waist-level viewfinder, a Kodak Brownie Hawkeye trapping old photons bounced off old gold to trap in a chemical matrix. It will then have been the present, was at one point to Daguerre futurity, the war undeclared to come.

Shanty sprawl and fresh concrete, abandoned projects in either sense, mouldering railways and posters for new ones, graphics on tablets and tablets with magics that feel real, undated but pristine. No flicker to focus here, a trust that we will understand that these are technologies that for us are somewhere above the bleeding edge but for them are past and scarring already. Some of that the careful use of technologies, Visual Effects by Blaise & Kyle Hosain and Michael Cisneros recalled The Vast Of Night or Monsters in the sense of perfect judgement of ambition and attainability. This felt and feels real throughout, more grounded than The Batman's wingsuit and closer to the influence of nirvana.

Doctors Sophia (Cindy Bishop) and Vattanak (Sahajak Boonthanakit) will differently affect the lives of Heng Leng and Strey Leak but their learning is a protoype for what follows. This is a voyage of discovery of both inner and outer worlds, a puzzle made of connections whose unfolding is as that Monkey King's gardeners. To see the roots without destruction, that would be the trick. Soil no more transparent than the soul, that would be the trial.

To have tragedy within its own history adds weird depth. Prak's performance being a genuine highlight in the balance of the oneiric and the online. While Srey Leak picks a lock with a different tool, I was reminded of an instrument of that endeavour known as a wave rake. Not just for that sense of the zen garden, the standing of stones to recall ripple. A shape with purpose that unlocks but is not a key. A mantra near the beginning, "I am the owner of my karma", but what if ownership was reliant upon transfer. What unlocks but is not a key? This film.

Reviewed on: 11 Mar 2022
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Karmalink packshot
In a near-future world, a boy and his friend try to untangle the mystery of his past-life dreams.

Director: Jake Wachtel

Writer: Jake Wachtel, Christopher Larsen

Starring: Srey Leak Chhith, Leng Heng Prak, Sahajak Boonthanakit, Cindy Sirinya Bishop, Rous Mony, Sveng Socheata, Sokvan So, Sreng Chear, Samneang Chea, No Mo, Ty Li, Tommy Henderson, Rando Henderson, Savern Oum, Pisey Pen

Year: 2021

Runtime: 101 minutes

Country: Cambodia, US

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