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It was on day four of a 10-day silent meditation retreat in Cambodia that Jake Wachtel began arranging ideas about reincarnation and implanted memories that had been fermenting in his mind for several months into what he calls a “fully-fledged movie.” That film would eventually become his feature debut Karmalink, a gripping and uniquely spun Khmer-language sci-fi mystery set in a near-future Phnom Penh that is now opening Venice’s Critics’ Week sidebar.
“I came out of that meditation retreat feeling like, whoa, I really like this idea now and want to put everything into it,” he says.
As well as leaving the retreat having devised the main story of Karmalink — in which a teenage Cambodian boy teams up with a street-smart girl from the same poor neighborhood to help unravel a mystery he believes is hidden in his past-life dreams — Wachtel came away with another realization: the two main roles should go to his two favorite students from one of his film classes.
A Palo Alto-raised Californian, Wachtel had moved to Phnom Penh in 2014 to teach a yearlong course in filmmaking to children living in disadvantaged areas of the city, part of the Filmmakers Without Borders initiative. Inspired by the community he was living among and growing to love, the rapid pace of change in the country (“there were two skyscrapers in Phnom Penh when I arrived — there are now 30,” he says), plus Kazuo Ishiguro’s dystopian sci-fi novel Never Let Me Go, he began dreaming up his own “Buddhist Cambodian” version. But rather than kids being cloned for their organs, in his tale they were having memories implanted in their heads, memories they thought were linked to reincarnation.
Even before knowing whether the film would ever be actually made, Wachtel wrote his two lead characters based on the personalities of his two fave pupils, Leng Heng Prak and Srey Leak Chhith, who had both grown up in Phnom Penh’s Tralop Bek neighborhood, where the film is set.
“Lang Heng is the consummate dreamer with his head in the clouds who wants to help people, while Srey Leak is a head shorter than everyone else but tough as nails and kind of has this really serious attitude,” he says. “I think the light-bulb moment was realizing that that she would play the detective, that she was the Cambodian version of Sherlock.”
Developing the film became a highly collaborative process with Wachtel’s young talent, who would come over to his house several times a week to rehearse scenes and discuss the story. They also helped with the script, which he had translated into Khmer by a friend who dropped out of med school to become a filmmaker.
“But he couldn’t write in the same vernacular that the kids were using socially, so they rewrote a lot of the dialog with me,” he says.
After years of honing his script — which Wachtel also ran past several Cambodian friends as part of efforts to ensure local authenticity — Karmalink’s eventual shoot lasted some 37 days, predominantly in and around Phnom Penh.
But it was while Wachtel was deep in the film’s edit in late 2020 when tragedy struck the production. Leng Heng — whose family the filmmaker had come to know so well that he even moved into their neighboring house as he worked on later script edits — passed away, something Wachtel is still coming to terms with. After it happened, he says he plunged into crisis mode, questioning whether or not he could — or should — continue with the film. He went on another meditation retreat and emerged feeling with a what he says was a “really strong sense of resolve” about what he was working on.
“But it’s so tragic. I remember after finishing shooting the movie having this conversation with Leng Heng and Srey Leak and being like, I can’t wait for the moment that we’re all old and sitting back and talking about this crazy thing that we did together,” he says. “I’m so proud of him and what he did, but there’s so much regret that he doesn’t get to see it.”
This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter’s Sept. 1 daily issue at the Venice International Film Festival.
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