What comes to mind when you think of Cambodia?
Street cafes where schlubby expatriates are fawned upon by teeny Asian prostitutes? Army types in Toyota Land Cruisers and boys on mopeds toting AK-47s? Limbless beggars and shattered streets?
The correct answer would be all of the above. And Portland-based movie director Marlin Darrah knows it. His debut feature, 'Monsoon Wife,' tells an engaging human story that remains sympathetic to the Cambodian people while hitting all the big targets.
Darrah, who usually makes travel documentaries and has been to 130 countries, is your typical been-there, done-that world citizen. But the little country between Thailand and Vietnam changed his life.
'I went to Cambodia in 2000 thinking about making a documentary, and soon realized it had to be a feature,' the 47-year-old says over tea at the Thurman Cafe. 'Phnom Penh is a renegade city, full of bullet holes. There are a few gems of French colonial architecture, and the temples, monks in saffron robes, the brothels, the whole sacred and profane thing. É '
So he wrote the story of Thomas McIntyre, an American man in Cambodia on the rebound. McIntyre has fallen in with a sleazy expat procuring country girls for 'karaoke' bars in the capital, Phnom Penh. He then mends his ways, finds a local girlfriend, or 'monsoon wife,' and starts selling his paintings to tourists.
Out of the blue, however, comes Cliff, an old fraternity brother. High on dot-com stock money, drunkenly toting his camcorder and obsessively checking his e-mail, Cliff is the updated ugly American abroad. He hires a reluctant Thomas for $5,000 to be his guide to the underbelly of city life for a week, including the notorious brothels with their underage girls. Cliff has brought his new wife with him, who happens to be Thomas' ex, setting up a powerful love-hate quadrangle.
Darrah calls his first feature a 'microindependent' because it had a budget of just $100,000, and almost everyone worked for 'points,' or a percentage of any profits.
'We would have had to pay that again in shooting permits, so we went guerrilla,' the Eugene native says with a smile.
A wild corner of the world
Cambodia has only been on the tourist map for two or three years, according to Darrah, and it's still the Wild West of Southeast Asia. You can rent a three-bedroom apartment in central Phnom Penh with a maid for $300 a month. Many of his cast and crew of 20 had never been outside the United States. Suddenly they were in a country where sex costs $2, a pound of pot $20, a machine gun $200.
Rob Stockton, another Eugene native, and lead actor McGeorge Robinson, from Prineville, are both now trying to make it in Los Angeles. Cambodia was their first trip abroad.
'I had culture shock on the very first day,' says Stockton, who brilliantly plays the obnoxious Cliff. 'But I kept telling myself not to compare it to the U.S. and accept it on its own terms.'
Much of the filming was done in the street, without paid extras. 'One time I saw this group of Khmers running at us with AK-47s, and I just froze. Luckily they ran right past us,' Stockton says.
Los Angeles-based actress Linda Shing (she regularly plays Nurse Corazon on 'ER') got sick as soon as she arrived. The wardrobe woman freaked out and confiscated the costumes, worried that she wasn't going to be paid or get home. A film loader ran off with the camera because he thought the plot was exploitative of the prostitutes, even though the point of the movie is quite the opposite. Both were Los Angeles people, allegedly used to bigger productions.
'Leftover men,' like Lord Jim
The power of 'Monsoon Wife' comes from the idea that Cambodia represents the flip side of the American dream: capitalism gone wild.
'There's a lot of prostitution in Thailand, but this seemed more insidious, almost custom-made for men that would wash up in that part of the world Ñ leftover men,' Darrah says. 'They get cheaper deals there, they can be left alone. Essentially they can be pederasts if they want. They're like, 'Oh, my god, I'm a king here.'
'It's the saddest idea, that they could be Lord Jim,' he says, referring to the 1900 novel by Joseph Conrad, an author who skewered the follies of imperialism.
Exterior scenes were filmed last, so as not to attract the attention of locals and officials seeking kickbacks. All the same: 'We shot in a typical brothel where the girls sit on risers behind glass, like they're under a heat lamp,' he says. 'We paid the Chinese-Cambodian Mafia $600 for 45 minutes. Not negotiable.'
Guards at the famous Angkor Wat temples were paid off with $20 bills and cigarettes. The crew got two days' work done before they were busted by a government official.
'You can look at 'Tomb Raider' and see the same locations,' says co-producer Skye Fitzgerald, 32, of the 2001 movie starring Angelina Jolie. 'Only they paid five grand. We paid a pack of cigarettes. That's how Cambodia works.'
Generally, according to Darrah, locals gathered to stare but didn't ask questions: 'My theory is that's because in the Khmer Rouge era if you asked a lot of questions you could be killed or detained.'
International stories tell all
Aside from one scene in Portland, 'Monsoon Wife' was the first American movie to be completely shot in Cambodia since Peter O'Toole's 1965 'Lord Jim.' At exactly the same time Darrah's crew was sneaking around Phnom Penh, Matt Dillon was helming his directorial debut, 'City of Ghosts,' on the very same streets.
Both films look beautiful and wallow in the bustling urban experience. Dillon's film, which cost $11 million to make, has more guns in it, but both portray the locals with a certain respect and tenderness. 'Monsoon Wife' goes deeper into the tragedy of the country, showing prostitution as a desperate response to historical and cultural conditions.
'Cambodia is a place where morality was basically killed between 1975 and 1979 Ñ everything right and just was killed,' Darrah says. 'And it's a Buddhist country, so they don't like to carry baggage and don't have a lot of guilt about sex. A parent will sell one kid to help the others, because it's better than starving in countryside.'
Darrah has more stories up his sleeve. One is about two gullible couples who travel around India looking for enlightenment, guided by an opportunistic Sikh. Another is based on an Amazon riverboat captain that the director knows. In the story, the drunk and bankrupt seaman takes on some 'loopy New Age tourists' who have heard about an island where natives are reincarnated as herons. It's another Conradian scenario, this time from 'Heart of Darkness.'
Darrah goes on: 'Tourists want the authentic and the antique, while the locals usually want modernity: a plastic bucket rather than a clay jar. But we're like, 'This plastic bucket ruins the picture!' I find that a great theme: Americans that get themselves into a cultural jam and can't get out.'