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Diaspora & Cinema: Ousa Khun, "It's time for us Khmers to tell our great adventures"

Dear readers, in our series of portraits of atypical Khmers around the world, we are back in California to feature Ousa Khun, a Cambodian writer-director whose film project on the Angkorian era, "The God King - Tale of the Serpent Sister", is currently being developed.

Ousa Khun (middle) at work
Ousa Khun (middle) at work

The man who declares "It's time for us Khmers to tell our epic stories and show the world that we also possess an incredible imagination" is a soldier's son from Battambang, who arrived in the USA at a very young age, following the dark days of the Khmer Rouge.

Benefiting from a youth with little exposure to racism, today he reveals, exclusively for CAMBODGE MAG, some of the highlights of his life's journey.



What were your passions when you were young?

"From an early age, I was immersed in drawing, painting and sculpture, until I focused on music when I entered high school. Learning to play the piano fascinated me. Unfortunately, at first I had no one to teach me, nor could I afford to buy a piano. It became my main passion.

Then I managed to convince my grandfather to provide me with some money for a private teacher. Although it only lasted two sessions due to financial constraints, it motivated me and taught me the basics of reading and writing music.

"Throughout my high school and early university years, music occupied the majority of my life. I composed and wrote several songs every day, recording them on cassettes to share with friends and family."

At the same time, I was also part of a breakdance team called the Bermuda Triangle. At its peak, we had 80 members and turned our name into a film production company: Bermuda Triangle Entertainment.

At the time, you didn't particularly want to be assimilated to a Cambodian. Why was that?

I came to believe in stereotypes about Cambodians and Asians in general. With no Cambodian role models in my life, I had no one to look up to. During those years, I was surrounded by gangs, poverty and gambling.

Unfortunately, some of the elderly Cambodians I met weren't the best examples. Even though I knew there were positive role models, I couldn't find anyone inspiring in the environment I found myself in. Nor did I have very open communication with my parents.

When did you discover the history of Khmer Srok and that of your family?

During my last year of high school, I reached a point where I felt compelled to delve into my mother's life and better understand her experiences growing up in Cambodia. This conversation turned out to be a real revelation for me.

I had been oblivious to the immense suffering my parents had endured just to bring us to America and provide for us. What's more, it was during this conversation that I discovered the existence of my two older sisters, who tragically did not survive.

Ousa Khun's parents and brother
Ousa Khun's parents and brother

As I continued to learn more, my mother gradually opened up to me, and this process led me to develop a deep appreciation of our shared identity and journey as individuals.

What are the most striking facts in this story (especially about your parents)?

My mother always told me the story of our birth. To cut a long story short, my twin brother and I were born in a hospital with no electricity. There was only one candle, and the doctors and nurses didn't know she was going to give birth to twins. I came out leg first, and I can't even begin to imagine the immense pain my mother must have endured. There's more to the story, but that was the gist of the day we were born.

"Honestly, I would have liked to have known my father a bit more, but he unfortunately passed away when I was about 10. So I never really knew him."

One story that always stood out was when my mother and father were sent to the "death pit" several times during the Cambodian genocide...and my mother managed to convince the guards to spare their lives, not once, but three times.

I also wanted to mention that my father and his friends were the first Cambodians to produce, write and direct a feature film in the USA in 1982-83.

How did these revelations affect you?

My perspective as a Cambodian American evolved, leading to a deeper appreciation of my culture, traditions and beliefs.

You have a twin brother, who works in the film industry like you. Your skills are complementary, but different. What are your respective strengths?

Growing up, my twin and I were remarkably similar, even resembling each other. We were always in sync as children. However, as we grew older, our interests began to diverge. I developed different preferences from my twin, partly because we were in separate classes. Although it's a long story, we ended up with different groups of friends, but we always got along well.

Ousa Khun
Ousa Khun

My brother concentrated more on cinematography and photography. Back then, we shot on real 35mm film, and he even learned to develop the film himself in a darkened room. Whenever we collaborated on projects, he usually took on the role of cinematographer and I did the editing. I now run a small post-production studio where we help each other with our projects.

What was your educational background?

I didn't finish my bachelor's degree in graphic design. However, in my job, having a degree doesn't really matter. It's my experience and skills that have always helped me get jobs. The success stories of billionaires who dropped out of university give me a glimmer of hope and inspiration.

Tell me about your passion for drawing?

Although I haven't drawn for over two decades, I do doodle and draw occasionally for therapeutic purposes. However, I've been busy lately and haven't had the time to sit down and draw or write music like I used to.

I hope that once my life calms down a bit, I'll be able to find some quality time to pursue my passions again. The advances in AI are impressive, but they still can't compare to the satisfaction of creating your own art and music.

You made your first film at the age of 24. Could you describe that experience for us?

I'll be brief, because it was a first experience. I can't go into details, but those who have been with me from the beginning know exactly what I had to go through. I may include the details in my memoirs, but it was a wild ride, akin to a life-or-death experience. I'll just say that despite the crazy obstacles I had to overcome, we still managed to reach the finish line and finish our first feature film. It may be one of the worst films I've ever made, but the valuable experience I've gained is what really counts.

How do you perceive Asians in general in the Hollywood industry?

It's improved a lot, but we're not there yet. All Hollywood executives seem to care about numbers; they neglect other factors. It's as if they were thinking:

"If Asian films can make billions, let's produce more of them."

However, at the same time, there are films in Hollywood and the independent world that continue to stereotype Asians. It's still extremely rare to find, for example, a dark-skinned Cambodian in a Hollywood film.

I don't know if such representation exists, but we hope this will soon change. Despite the challenges, progress is being made, particularly as independent producers continue to tell compelling stories and show more representation, especially for Southeast Asians.

What do you think is the place of Khmers in the film professions?

The Cambodian film industry is gradually making a comeback, particularly among the new generation of filmmakers.

"Although progress has been slow, I'm pleased to see an increase in the number of high-quality films produced and directed by Cambodians."

Although we currently rank poorly on the world stage, I firmly believe that the future is very bright.

In fact, it was a Cambodian, Haing S. Ngor, who made history as the first Southeast Asian to win an Oscar for his role in "The Killing Fields".

You also set up a YouTube channel, which became a huge success. Tell us about it!

Many people are still unaware of my fairly successful YouTuber past during my short stint in 2012. By then, I'd already produced three feature films. While everyone on YouTube aspired to be or create films, I took a different path and decided to try my hand at YouTube.

To challenge myself and avoid riding on my friend's coattails, I came up with a silly sketch, rounded up my friends and shot it in my backyard.

"To my amazement, in just four days it reached a million views."

It was featured on the G4 network and various popular social media sites. I even heard rumors that Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent and rapper T-Pain had a good laugh watching my video. T-Pain was so inspired that he tried to reproduce the sketch.

However, my YouTube journey came to an end after a few months due to unfair treatment from the platform.

Despite the challenges, I accomplished what I set out to do: create viral videos. In fact, I've achieved this feat not just once, but eight times in a row. In 2012, I even ranked as YouTube's 40th best director when the platform still had a ranking system in place.

You've directed several films in your career, what are they?

I've worked on a total of nine feature films, editing and directing them all. Only a few of these films are listed on IMDB, as I chose to remove my name from the credits for the rest. These films involved mature content that didn't suit my personal tastes.

The new films I'm currently working on will be written and directed by me. I still have these passion projects that I've been developing over the last few years. I'm about to shoot one of them by the end of this year.

My next four feature films: "My Darling Frankie" (Thriller), "WTH Popcorn", (Action and Superhero Comedy) "Kungfu Earl" (Dramedy) and "Iron Fist Flying Squirrel". (Adventure and action comedy).

What have been your biggest successes?

My only notable success has been on YouTube, my YouTube sketches have collectively amassed over 200 million views, which is pretty impressive considering I've only been following the platform for a few months and haven't created any content since 2012.

What's more, there's a top-secret project I'm involved in, but unfortunately I can't divulge any details about it. However, by the end of 2023, the public will know more about it.

You are now devoting your time to writing and directing a unique film: The God King. Could you tell us how you came up with the idea of dealing with an Angkorian film?

The idea of making a film about the ancient history of the Angkorian period was born in 1998, when I was at university. After watching the first Lord of the Rings film in 2001, I was inspired to create a Khmer film with this level of visual storytelling.

As an avid Final Fantasy fan and gamer, the imaginative worlds, characters, costumes and landscapes further fueled my creativity.

In 2016, when I visited Cambodia for the first time since leaving in 1981, I was amazed by Siem Reap and the magnificent temples, especially Angkor Wat.

This experience deepened my love for my country and its people. By this time, I had already written a 14-page treatment for a historically accurate depiction of the rise and fall of King Jayavarman VII in the Khmer Empire.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, I started experimenting with Unreal Engine, a real-time 3D authoring tool mainly used for game development, as well as video and film production. This triggered a creative breakthrough. I went back to the drawing board and started writing a new treatment, abandoning the quest for strict historical accuracy in favor of an epic story.

I finally solidified the whole plot and renamed the film "The God King: Tale of the Serpent Sister", paying a little homage to the classic Cambodian film "Pous Keng Kang" (The Snake King's Wife). Although the two stories are distinct, I wanted to incorporate elements familiar to the older generation of Cambodians, thus evoking nostalgia.

How do you create your characters?

Most often, the characters I create are influenced by real people I've met. For example, one of the main characters in "The God King, Tale of the Serpent Sister" has many of my mother's personality traits. It's much easier to develop characters when you already know their essence.

Speaking of which, the lead actor in "WTH Popcorn", another feature film I'm writing, was specifically designed for him, given his unique personality. To enhance his portrayal, I incorporated a bit of the "MSG aroma" that gave birth to this character's features.

How long have you been working on this fantastic project?

Since 1998, going through various iterations of the story and title, refining and shaping it into its current form. After careful consideration, I finally settled on the title "The God King: Tale of the Serpent Sister", as it perfectly encapsulates the essence of the story I intend to convey. There are even several Facebook posts from around 2009 where I mention this film.

How do you expect audiences to react to this never-before-explored subject?

I've never felt so enthusiastic and inspired. There's not a hint of nervousness in me, and that's exactly how it should be.

As I began to share fragments and glimpses of the film's visual design, I could see my enthusiasm spreading. This serves as an additional source of creative fuel for me.

Finally, what would you like to see in the future, professionally speaking?

I used to advocate inspiring each other rather than fostering jealousy. I used to believe this was the key to maintaining a strong empire.

However, my view has changed and I now stress the importance of prioritizing health. That means nourishing mind, body and spirit. So, eat healthy, be yourself and practice yoga.

Interview by Chantha R - Françoise Framboise

Merci pour votre envoi !

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