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The Future Looks Like A Memory

An Interview with Davy Chou on "Cambodia 2099"

Johnny Yoeun

Ainsley Chac

Cambodia 2099 is about two friends who hang out daily at a place named Diamond Island, in Cambodia. They hang out there every day and they tell each other their dreams. One has a dream of going to the future and the other one has a nightmare dealing with past events of Cambodia. 

Johnny Yoeun: You talk about these two guys that had dreams and then it directs them into a certain path. How did you come up with this concept? 

Davy Chou: It's hard for me to originate all the ideas of the film because I shot everything I could feel, see, or hear at the time. When I hung out at [Diamond Island], I used to see two guys talking to each other facing the river. In the river, there's nothing much, nothing extremely beautiful, but I can see they will keep on talking as if the view was giving them some purpose or meaning. So there was this curiosity and some kind of small mystery that brought me to imagine the story of the two guys. I actually had to push to see where people were after 5/6:00 PM, after their school or work. It’s really a window of the future, but it's an unfinished future because there's construction everywhere with advertisement for that future. So I was wondering, what does this place provide to people for them to be attracted so much every day going there. I guess that this idea of the future of Cambodia, even though it was a very capitalistic Chinese modern future, was still something that was kind of a dream for them, a projection into something else that was not them. 

JY: Listeners are given a glimpse of the current political climate through a radio reporting and there's questions surrounding the irregularity of events that occurred during the 2013 electoral campaign. Sotha and his dream are used to envision what 2099 would look like in Cambodia. How have you seen people inside and outside of Cambodia drive this conversation of what they envision Cambodia to look like in 2099? 

DC: I was shooting in August 2013, and one month before was the election. It seemed very quiet and there was wariness coming from the past events of elections in Cambodia that haven't always been very quiet; on the contrary, they have been very tense moments. It was also a feeling of uncertainty, which I think I wanted to touch in the film because all these people talk about their dreams, their future, their desires, but everything is kind of glued into some kind of uncertainty, which is basically what the future is, right? But in that country, in that specific time of the election, in that specific place of unfinished Diamond Island, it was very interesting for me to play with all those ideas. And one of my characters doesn’t think of the future in 20 years because he has an intuition that the future of Cambodia in 20 years will not provide him anything drastically different, so he needs to project himself further ahead, 99 years. 

JY: Throughout the film, there’s this westernized idea that seems to represent a journey to the promised land. This idea is depicted by what natural beauty looks like according to Western standards, where the make-up tutorial was used to model after Angelina Jolie. And then Kovich was deciding to move to the United States to be with his mother. What is the general perspective of Western ideas today in Cambodia? 

DC: Because of the tragedy of the Khmer Rouge, many families have been split and it's pretty common that families have some kind of relatives who moved to France before or after the Khmer Rouge Regime or moved to America. Many people have this feeling of, "I will dream to live in America." Sometimes it's an illusion, there's no chance that they will go there, but they’re still hoping for that. It was basically inspired by a cousin of mine who I met in Battambang back in 2009. He has been waiting for three years for his passport and visa paper because his mom remarried someone in America, and his only dream was to move to America and the only thing he would do is learn one-hour a day English at the church. I also just met the actress on Facebook and then I had dinner with her, and I didn't know her. So to write her character, I was just blindly asking, "So what do you do in life, what do you like?" And she said, "I like makeup tutorials." So it was playful and the mixing of different stories, the story of the actress and the story of my cousin. 

America is still very powerful, but you can also see a lot of dreams of people going to Korea because of the strength of K-pop and their pop culture. But more realistically, there is a lot of influence from the Chinese now, not that people really dream to go to China, but young people try to learn Chinese because the Chinese are investing a lot in Cambodia businesses. So you know now if you learn Chinese, it'll help you make a living.

JY: In the film, there's a presence of wartime trauma that lingers and its effects have a lasting impact on everyone that's still living in the country. Kovich was recounting his dream to Sotha that was invoked by the 1997 clashes. I think for a lot of us, even though the genocide was 40 years ago, that energy still lingers, right? It's a very dark energy. So how does that affect people's dreams, motivations or resilience?

DC: I would say first the nightmare or even the link with the 1970s events was fully inspired by a dream that my girlfriend had. And again this was right before the election so I think for sure there was a link. For me, it was interesting material because we were making a film about the future at the time of the election, which is basically about deciding for your future. Cambodia is a country in which you always feel a very contradictory tension about the ghost of the past and the way that people, especially young people, try not to deal with it or try not to think of it. Because, of course, as young people, they don't want to be haunted or stuck by the past and they just want to project the future. But there is this context that you cannot forget. There is this context that is here even though its invisibility is very present. It was interesting for me to play with the ghost of the past, not only the usual presence of the ghosts of the Khmer Rouge, but to show a more complex reality that so many things from the past has an influence on today. And that scene that's suppose to talk about the future, but actually it's kind of stuck between the nightmare of the past and the dream of the future, some things vanish when there is so much presence in the past and in the future. The ghost of the trauma of the past and this obsession for the future, and the youth is basically the moment of the present. 

Even more precisely, the long motor sequence with Kovich driving around with his girlfriend. That's exactly it, they're supposed to enjoy that moment, which is the last moto ride together. The motorcycle ride for me is a representation of that. It's supposed to be a present moment in which to enjoy that moment of seeing for the last time this environment and doing this ride, which they've been doing everyday for the time of their relationship. At the same time, they are totally stuck between the past and the future. The repetition of the music is something that we can see that's not really there. I don't know how to explain it exactly, but the feeling that is a universal feeling that sometimes you want to be right here, right now, but you can't be. The moment is already gone when you try to experience it. So that was what I was trying to touch with that moto scene, that feeling of being too late, too much in advance, but never synchronized.

JY: Even though there's a lot of things going on, you just got to stop and enjoy the moment, right? 

DC: We play with the idea of memory because there's this music that plays twice and when you listen to the music twice, it already looks like a memory. We paired that up with the sound design of some motor sounds and some ambient sounds that come a little later or a little in advance. That was this idea of the melancholy of the past and that projection of the future that Kovich is about to move to America, but it doesn't sound like such a sexy dream anymore already. He says, he'll go there, but it already sounds like a fake memory. The future looks like a memory.