Sometimes, you just have to do it. This was the first film I shot in Phnom Penh. We had an "opening" for Studio Revolt (studio-revolt.com/), a media lab for me and my wife, on Friday, June 24, 2011 at Java Cafe on Sihanouk Blvd. I have been trying to get one short film done and premiere it at the opening for a couple of weeks. But my poor planning and difference of culture and language hindered me from following through the plan. I actually had a full rehearsal with 3 actors on Monday of that week, but that project failed to materialize... at least for now. Then out of desperation and a thirst for adventure, I turned to Thea for help to get a film done in 24 hours and he gave me his commitment. We shot this film in four hours in the evening a day before the premiere. Due to lack of script (mostly improvised) and my inability to understand the language (what's directing at this point?), one big nuance ended up missing from the piece; Veasna's mother is dying and Veasna is doing this "pitch" only to make his mother feel better in her death bed. So I might take the liberty and tweak the subtitle to fix the problem. I am not sure if such a thing should be allowed in the context of consciencious international filmmaking. But well... Let's see. Anyhow, this version is as it was presented at Java. I plan on finishing this piece with better sound track and maybe with a piece of music later. Big deep fat thanks to Thea, Kosal and my wife, Anida Yoeu Ali. Also special thanx to Anna Tuyen Tran for her impromptu appearance during her own show to act "like a curator." (Masahiro, 06/27/2011)# vimeo.com/25702543 Uploaded
This was a collaboration with dancer Ayako Kato (artunionhumanscape.net/). It became the second project done as Studio Revolt (studio-revolt.com/). I don't remember how it came about but I remember telling her that we should do something for fun and beauty. I'd been wanting to do some performance video but I did not want to do a typical music video. Then she wanted to try something out in this gorgeous looking church in Chicago where she had access for rehearsals and weekly performance. I went to check out the site and thought wow I'd not have to do anything to make this place look pretty. Ayako, an accomplished dancer, figured out the choreography based on a few themes we talked about. She was actually very pregnant at the time of filming. It aired on a local PBS affiliate station after completion. Not much effort was made to send it out to festivals. Jason Roebke, Ayako's husband and a renowned basist, did the music. (Masahiro, 07/02/2011)# vimeo.com/25906238 Uploaded
Two static camera positions. No spoken words. A whole family drama in 15 minutes. That was the package. In the process I tried to touch on topical issues about communication via internet. Does it change us or are we the same?
The whole thing was shot in two days. If the schedule had worked out, I could have done it in one. This was the first project I actually spent a satisfactory amount of time for rehearsals. We had 5-6 rehearsal sessions over the course of a month to prepare for the shoot. The difficult part was to keep the performance lively while the characters primarily typed to communicate. We had a lot of discussion as to how to convey the characters' feelings and emotions without uttering a single words. Mia Park and Elliot TaeSoon Kahng both did a splendid job and their insights were essential in forming the characters, with, of course, my affinity towards over the top facial moments. Butoh? No. Like Kubrick on characters under distress (i.e. the writer dude in Clockwork Orange as he remembers the ordeal). Music was done by Laurent Ziliani, who did the fantastic piano score for Yarning for Love, and his partner Thomas Parisch of PearUp Media. The story is supposed to be taking place in L.A. and Philadelphia, but they were both shot in Niles, Illinois, about half a mile apart. I did all the art direction by myself. I'm very proud of the movie poster behind the dude. Can anybody find a picture of Jesus? There is supposed to be a small group of fans in Australia for this film. Ben Claremont of "Eulogy" film fame (vimeo.com/22193476) is the biggest fan of all so far. We met on a film festival at Gstaad, Switzerland 5 minutes walk from where Polanski was chilling. Thanks, Ben. This wonderful little film premiered at Asiana International Short Film Festival. (Masahiro, 07/02/2011)# vimeo.com/25906734 Uploaded
So our old landlord turned out to be a prick and wanted to keep all our security deposit, just because we decided to break the lease after 6 months as opposed to 11, which was the original agreement. But my wife had enough of the smell and the darkness of the house. Our bedroom was located next to a bathroom of an adjacent restaurant. And it was hardly contained. You can smell everything. You can hear everything. On top of that, we would find red ants on the bed and on our daughter's diaper tray. We had to get out as soon as we found a better place.
We kept the old house immaculate. We brought gifts to the landlord and her grand kids when I came back from Japan. It didn't matter. They were keeping every dime of the deposit. So if we were to stay till July 7th, which was when the new apartment would be ready, the landlord's son was going to charge us extra rent per diem. We said forget it. We'd be out at the end of June. Bye bye.
Then our new landlord also turned out to be a pain in the butt, for wanting to charge us rent from the beginning of July, when the previous renter had already paid the rent through July 8th!! Double dipping. No way Cambodian hustlers. So we said forget about it too. We'd move out of the old house at the end of June and wouldn't move in until the 8th of July. The gap was about a week. We'd be homeless during that time. "What should we do?" My wife and I discussed.
Then we decided to do something spontaneous. Let's go to Battambang! It's the second largest city in Cambodia about 6 hour drive from Phnom Penh. She had to do some interview/research anyway with her Muslim relatives. I had... well... nothing to do.
So I decided to try making a film while I was there.
And this city of Battambang, which is about an hour from the Thai border and also where my wife was born, turned out to be a little charming hub of artists. The city immediately disarmed us due to (it took a few days to realize this) lack of barbed wires on building walls. Phnom Penh is all spikes all over the city. It cuts your eyes just by looking at it, and the visual experience of those barbed wires do some weird things to your head. Battambang was much slower. I saw much fewer Lexuses (= less corruption). And fellow Khmer artists were much more willing to collaborate and help out.
I still had no idea what I'd do for the planned short film. Slacking off the entire week was also an attractive option. Then we were invited to Sammaki Gallery (facebook.com/pages/Sammaki/159502037437469) to do a presentation of Studio Revolt on Saturday and also to a Tea Party on Sunday. Darren Swallow, founder of Sammaki, introduced us to a few local artists on that Sunday and one of them was Cheat Sambath, who ended up playing the lead role, who happened to have time to do something with us on that week. I wasn't immediately convinced he was what I was looking for, but I began to entertain some ideas.
On Monday we met again at a coffee shop near the river and he told me more about himself. Sambath was a painter and he was also teaching painting to people who were recovering from drug addiction. I asked more about the drug issues. I knew it was mostly methamphetamine, which is called "yama" here. Sambath started telling me how rampant it was in his neighborhood. I asked if I could come and check out his hood. Sambath was very happy to bring me there. I was not all that comfortable, so I brought my wife's research assistant, Vanny Kong, as bodyguard and we used her uncle as moto driver.
Sambath's neighborhood was exactly how he described it. No alley was paved. Garbage was everywhere. In the middle of the hood was a slaughter house that let out streams of spillage mixed with animal excrement and blood to the neighboring area. There were prostitutes hanging out on the balcony in hammocks just outside his house next to an obnoxious karaoke bar, people gambling just next door, and people smoking "yama" in an abandoned hut behind his house. Of all this sighting of the unholy, the strangest thing I saw was Sambath's nonchalance about the entire situation. "That's the drug dealer," said he standing next to the drug dealer. "That's the prostitute," said he standing at their corner. "These people are smoking drug," said he as he stood by the doorless doorway of the drug den. It was like he was pointing out different flowers at a national park. He grew up there. He knew everyone and everyone knew him. "I hate it," said Sambath. "I want to move out soon." But he didn't have enough money. It amazed me as to how this young man kept his head straight in this environment.
So all this gave me some idea of what I should do, and I came up with the basic story line of Samnang's Bear.
The shooting was an awesome experience. I knew the general flow of the storyline but I only had Sambath. I added the "mother" character when we got there because she was there and she was Sambath's mother. Sambath brought in Sokthyna the "friend" character. Khmer people irk on his lines every time they watch the film but that's my fault. Pimp character, Sak, was a friend of Sambath's we ran into when we were doing the location scout. Sak is an MC and has his own local radio show. Pimp's henchmen, Chunnly and Dara are artists from Phare Ponleu Selpak (phareps.org). They were looking for us in the area at night when we were shooting because they wanted to see how I'd film a movie alone. And they showed up in a big bunch. It was awesome. I thought I was doing it alone, then suddenly I had my own gang. Then I got the idea to add them to the Pimp's scene. That was a great decision. The dude who looks like Manny Pacquiao is Chunnly. He is an animator. He's leaving for France this August to study animation there for three years. I'm really excited for him. The Lady Boy scene was made possible with three moto head light beams, which were provided by these volunteers who lifted up their vehicles onto the sidewalk.
So it was like this. I started that night just with me, Vanny, and Sambath. And by the end of the night I had 10 people crew/cast who popped out of nowhere. They followed us everywhere and helped out with what they could. It was nice to have that kind of crowd. It was fun and spontaneous. At the end of the night, I bought everyone ice cream. That was 50 cents each. I felt very special. Who would have thought you could make a film like that. You go in not knowing how it would work out, and you come out eating ice cream with ten new friends. Cambodia can be very generous sometimes.
Thanks Battambang artists!!
The original music was provided by Laurent Ziliani of Pear Up Media (pearupmedia.com). It's the same French dude who did original score for Instant Slapping and Yarning for Love. The Teddy bear was provided by Darren's daughter Padma. So Darren basically hooked me up with two leads. (Masahiro, 08/02/2011)
Samnang's Bear was produced by Studio Revolt - studio-revolt.com# vimeo.com/27202521 Uploaded
This project was officially the first film done under the Studio Revolt label. The production happened in 2009 of spring. What made it the first Studio Revolt production? The camera. Canon 5D Mark II. It's a camera I bought around that time. 5DMk2 was out only about a month when I bought it. I was broke and we just had a child. It took a lot of thinking to decide if I should get the camera. I believed for the longest time that a real filmmaker does not own a camera. It was something that was pointed out to me when I was volunteering for film project in my early college years. This guy, Terry, said nobody who ended up spending lots of money on buying a camera never justified their purchase in their productivity. And it was true. I observed those who spent thousands of dollars to buy camera, thinking the lack of access was the cause for their low output. And turned out they were as unproductive as before the purchase. Anyhow, it was my superstition that you go down as a filmmaker if you owned a camera of your own. You are supposed to rent cameras for filming. You are supposed to have that sort of project-mindedness to make and finish a film. If you were someone who had to rely on the whim or passion, then you wouldn't get anything done.
So it was against my belief to buy this camera, but I tell you, it seemed ready. I'm talking about this "don't buy camera" philosophy from the perspective of the total real film production experience. When I started making films, there was no digital cameras at all. And these digital cameras started popping out in mid-90s. It was still video cameras. They were getting cheaper, but image was nowhere near films. I knew one thing. Film captures images on light sensitive particles, which are basically molecules. Video captures images on sensors, that are constructed in factory by human design. There was no way a pixel of sensor, which has to perform complex tasks, can be as small as a single molecule of silver halide crystal, the secret of photo films. Even if it was to happen, it would take 20 - 30 years. Well... I was wrong. I don't know where it went wrong but I was wrong on the image resolution. Digital cameras began to pump out images that was as good as 35 mm films in resolution, and some began to go tapeless. The time was getting ripe.
And there is another factor that was coming ripe other than the resolution of the image. It was ... the depth of field... What!?
Depth of field is a photographic term that refers to the "zone" that fall in a certain distance from the camera, where objects appear in focus. How "deep" or "shallow" this field becomes is determined by several optical factors, but one stands essential in defining its potential. That is the size of the film or sensor. It is commonly believed that having things in focus is the right way to photograph. Yes, that is true. But good photography is also defined by what you keep out of focus so that we can pay attention to the objects that matter in the photograph. When the camera is capable of producing "shallow" depth of field, the photographer can choose the central object/person to be in focus while the background and foreground can be thrown out of focus. It is one of the ways to separate your subject from the background, and it works well. You can produce that beautiful sense of focal concentration with 35mm film, but not very well with 16mm film, because the gauge, the size of film or sensor is much smaller. You need a big "gauge" to produce that wonderful shallow focus.
Well.... Canon 5D Mk2 was the first digital video camera to offer that 35mm gauge size sensor for like $2500 for the body. It was the first enabler of the prohibitively expensive artistic expression, the shallow depth of field, to be available to general public. Until then you had to rent cameras in the range of $100,000 to just have that expression on your palette.
The ways to exploit "shallow depth of field" had been experimented for a few years prior to arrival of 5D Mk2 by video/film enthusiasts by adding enormous optical gears in front of the camera to create 35mm film like shallow depth of field. The idea was brilliant, but the set-up was way too cumbersome, and it was butt ugly. So when Canon came up with the idea to add 1080p video capacity to their second generation of Canon 5D, the whole photographic world and the video/film world paid attention. If the image was to turn out right, this was going to be the game changer. And many of us watched clips that were released prior to its release. It looked darn good. What won me over was the promo video put together by Canon Japan (most of my Western counterparts were won over by this video done by this one guy in California who was given access to a test version of 5D Mk2. I wasn't that impressed by his stuff). The short film was a visual documentation of "Noh" theater from its prep to the show. It blew me away. I thought I was watching a footage shot with Panavision. It was ill. I knew I had to get one.
But I was a father of a little infant girl and my wife was still in grad school and my freelance wasn't a stable source of income. So I was like, Oh, man, I would have to wait like 5 years. I consulted with my wife and she basically pushed me to get one. I thought of debts and credit cards and all that. I'm an old school Japanese. I have low tolerance to debt. My wife is a suburban American by association. She puts money where her heart goes and worries about the payments later. She firmly believed I should get a camera, a very darn decent camera, if I though that could give me tools of expression without confinement. You see, until then, a professional level camera was a thing you had to rent or check-out from school to access. I knew 5D Mk2 was what I needed, but I still wasn't sure. I had that belief once you owned your own camera, you stop being productive. I struggled. But I went for it. I needed a turning point. My first feature had gone nowhere since its debut at Pusan Int'l Film Fesitval in 2006. I had not made anything since. I needed something.
And I bought the camera as a collective investment with my wife. She wanted it to be a business expense for the two of us. We'd use the camera for our projects. That's when we started entertaining the idea that we needed a legal entity to write off the cost for our own production. I never ever never wanted to collaborate with my wife. For the longest time, I did not believe in collaborations. I especially disliked the egalitarian ideas of art making. That was B.S. and weak. Art creation requires a vision and the artist takes the final responsibility for it, whether it's a success or failure. My wife believed in communal way of art making. It's okay. But I'm not one of those people. So the idea of "collaboration" dreaded me. But I knew I had ways of not getting involved. I would just offer her tech service. I do my own things. So I would not be contaminated by the community art business.
Anyhow, that's where the foundation of Studio Revolt was laid. It was the necessity based around the purchase of this camera, Canon 5D Mark II.
Yarning for Love was born out of the need to put this camera into use. I had already shot quite a bit of footage for my baby so I knew the camera was good. By the way, filming kids is one of the best ways to train your photographic skills. Film your kids all the time. You'll be good at focusing, exposure control and composition. Best training. I tell you. So I had ton of kid footage. But no narrative. I knew I was ready. But I had no crew or sound equipment. That's when I learned my wife's friend Kristina Wong was coming to Chicago to do her performance at University of Chicago. I knew that was the opportunity for me to put the camera into test.
The story was conceived at a coffee shop by University of Chicago campus, where apparently President Obama used to frequent when he as a senator. I met up with Kristina Wong and another person who ended up bailing out at the last minute. Anyhow, Kristina and I went though some ideas, and came up with the basic story life of this couple.
Kristina ( kristinawong.com/ ) is an accomplished performance artist. She's also a very good writer. She is productive like a crazy artist person, which is somewhat true. Watch some of her YouTube stuff (youtube.com/user/kristinawong). She does those skits fast. Imagine what she can do with full production. I wish HBO would give her a chance. I think Kristina is 20 times funnier than Cho. Kristina Wong and Robert Karimi (kaoticgood.com/bio.html) are two friends of my wife's whom I believe should be producing at the national scale and making real good money. I hate how they have to accept being not included due to their race. Really. I know talent when I see one. I tell you.
The filming took place in one morning and one afternoon, total of maybe 6 hours. I edited it in a day or two. I was happy with how it came out, although I had little control over the camera. You see. Canon did not allow photographers to control some aspects of the camera during the video shoot. There was a big international movement by the photographers to pressure Canon into lifting the electronic ban on the full camera control. Obviously, Canon was not sure what this beast would do to the video industry, so it kept a stupid cap on the camera's ability by not allowing the manual control of exposure during the video shoot. It's a funny page in camera history. Thousands of people posted how to go around it on YouTube, most of it involved disengaging the lens halfway after setting exposure, etc. It was crazy but it showed how committed people were to this camera. It's really a good phenomenon to study as a chapter in cinema history.
I had no sound. It was scripted and filmed as a silent movie. I just needed a good score to go along with it. I didn't know who to turn to and I had very little money to offer. Then I remembered this man I ran into at Cannes back in 2001. His name was Laurent. We were just waiting to get tickets for the day's screening, when he struck up a conversation with me. He was a local guy. He said he was a chemist or something but wanting to join the film industry as a music composer. We met one more time at some restaurant and that was it. We kept in contact via e-mail. I had learned that he got into UC Berkeley to study music. It took several years to realize he actually ended up going to Berklee College of Music somewhere on the east coast. I had no idea what he was doing and how good he was, but we e-mailed each other and entertained the day when we would work together on a film. I knew he was an accomplished pianist by training. I contacted Laurent and asked if he would write a score for my little comedy. He was very happy to put out a piece for me.
Thus this little experiment of my new stage in filmmaking came about. And this film became quite popular in the film festival circuit. I ended up traveling to Switzerland the following year by invitation to present the film near where Roman Polanski was hiding. I owe its success to Kristina and Laurent. Dwight Sora also saved the ship for me. Thanks. And my wife... your adventurous financial outlook brought this joint venture called Studio Revolt. Yes, we lost a condo along the way, but what the heck. We're here in Cambodia, making films and art we ought to be making.
So thanks credit cards.
(Masahiro, November 2, 2011)# vimeo.com/31445588 Uploaded
Other Shorts by Masahiro Sugano
Browse This Channel
More stuff from “Other Shorts by Masahiro Sugano”
Heads up: the shoutbox will be retiring soon. It’s tired of working, and can’t wait to relax. You can still send a message to the channel owner, though!