Clash between traditional beliefs and modern medicine laid bare in Cambodian thriller

By: Logan Connor - Posted on: March 6, 2017 | Cambodia

Mind Cage director Amit Dubey on his feature film, which premiered in Phnom Penh on Sunday night

Director Amit Dubey (C) on the set of Mind Cage
Director Amit Dubey (C) on the set of Mind Cage. Photo: Mind Cage Facebook

Premiering at the 7th annual Cambodia International Film Festival, Mind Cage is a psychological thriller by Indian director Amit Dubey that explores the dissonance between old and new Cambodia, telling the story of a Phnom Penh psychiatrist whose life is torn apart by a psychotic kru khmer, or traditional healer.

After the psychiatrist publicly rebukes the kru khmer for his brutal healing techniques, including locking a mentally ill patient in a bamboo cage, the two face off in the capital in a plot that makes for a thrilling, and at times disturbing, moviegoing experience. The film was co-written by Dubey and Michael Hodgson, who worked on the Cambodian action-comedy Jailbreak.

Following the world premiere of Mind Cage on Sunday night at Phnom Penh’s Major Cineplex, Dubey spoke to Southeast Asia Globe about shooting a feature film on a tight budget, using music to build tension in a film, and casting the perfect villain.

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Can you tell me about the inspiration behind the movie – what went into writing the script? Where did the idea come from?

I make videos for NGOs for a living. One of the videos I was making was for this mental health hospital in Takeo for children. When I was making the video, I got to meet the psychiatrist there, and then we became friends.

At the same time, I was thinking of making a feature film, because I’ve been [in Cambodia] for a few years and that’s my dream, to make a movie. The idea struck me; why not make the protagonist a psychiatrist? It’s a little bit off, but that’s the kind of stuff I like in movies.

I wrote the first draft of the script based on his personal story. I collaborated with Michael Hodgson, who is also a writer. He’s written Jailbreak, Hanuman. We worked together; we brainstormed for four months – not writing a single line of script, just brainstorming over a few beers [laughs].

We came up with this character of the traditional doctor [as the antagonist]. We thought, ‘let’s give him a strong opponent’ to sort of match the parallels in society [between traditional beliefs and modern science]. It fits in with the changing situation in Cambodia, which always makes me curious – what’s going on and how people are dealing with it.

You’ve said that this movie took a year to write. Was this something you did in your spare time, or for fun? Or did you sit down and say, ‘I’m going to write this much by this time”?

I’d be happy if I wrote one paragraph sometimes. But to get into the zone of writing [is difficult]. And the script went through, like, three drafts. The first draft was a little bit disconnected from Cambodia. It was still good, but I don’t picture that movie being based here, because it was focused too much on the psychiatrist. There was nothing relevant to Cambodia. I mean there were some parts, but not deep. When I got to the second draft, it really took off. I was super excited, because we created this guy [the kru khmer character, played by Rous Mony]. He’s such a powerful piece of work.

The actor, when I was writing the character, I knew it was this guy who was going to play him. I didn’t picture anybody else. I’ve worked with him before in my friend’s movies. I’ve seen his performances and he’s such a talented guy.

What was the casting process like?

For [Mony], it was already decided at the script-writing level. But then a lot of the other people…I was shooting another movie with a friend, I was editing on set for Forest Whispers, by my friend Jimmy [Henderson]. The psychiatrist [played by Keo Ratha] plays a small role in that movie. I was a little bit stressed about finding the right kind of psychiatrist, who sets the right tone without going overboard. When I saw [Ratha] there was just this vibe he had – not during the shooting, but when I was watching him [off-screen]. He was always a little bit solitary, even when there were a lot of people on the set. He was always taking these moments – and you see that in the movie, there’s always these contemplative moments, with him by himself. I hadn’t met anyone that aligned on the same level. It just connected, and you see that in the movie.

Was it difficult to find the other actors?

I was recommended Sveng Socheata, [who played the protagonist’s wife]. She’s been in the news lately [for her starring role in Angelina Jolie’s First They Killed My Father]. Apparently, she was really famous before, and then she was really sick and kind of went off the grid. So this movie is her comeback. We shot this before Angelina’s movie. She came for a casting, and I asked her to perform [a particularly intense scene]. I got goosebumps by her performance. I was like, ‘you have the role’ (laughs).

What was it like shooting here? What kind of budget were you working with and how long did it take?

It’s a very small movie, with big dreams. The budget is a little over six figures. I think it wasn’t too challenging because we planned it a lot and I had a really good time. Shooting was actually a lot of fun and we really enjoyed it. We had a 21-day schedule, but we finished in 20 days. And I added, like, 25 scenes. It was a great experience.

There are a lot of scenes where stark imagery was mixed with low, brooding music. What kind of choices did you make when it came to setting the mood or aesthetics?

I think the best thing that happened in making this movie was the collaboration with the composer. I met the composer, David Gunn, and he’s got this band, Krom Monster, which is working with the Cambodian Living Arts local musicians. Before I met him, I always wanted the music to include traditional instruments, but with an electronic touch to it. I didn’t know how I was going to do it.

[Krom Monster was] performing at Meta House and I accidentally just stopped by and was like, ‘this is it’. He was here only for a week and he was going to London. I got a 15-minute meeting with him, showed him a teaser and he was on board. Everything was done over Skype. He works with the musicians of the Cambodian Living Arts really well. So, I would discuss with him, he would tell them [what to do], I would go do the recordings with them, we’d send it to David and he’d mix it out.

It’s dark, but not Hollywood dark. It’s moody dark. Pretty much anything that wasn’t low frequency was all traditional instruments, but they were experimented with. At the end of the day it’s an experimental film – with visuals, with acting, with locations, everything.