In Phonom Penh, lovers, Hirum (Rous Mony) and Sovanna Sag Malen) escape a brutal and exploitative world of crime and violence and seek refuge in the jungle.



SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: In a short period, the relatively young Australian filmmaker Amiel Courtin-Wilson has formed an impressively strong relationship with the selectors of the prestigious Venice Film Festival. His 2011 feature debut Hail screened there. Two years later, his second film, Ruin (co-directed with Michael Cody), won the Special Jury Prize in the festival’s Horizons section and in both cases it’s not hard to see why the selectors and judges were impressed.

Kim Mordaunt’s The Rocket showed how the decision by Australian filmmakers to work in Asia with local performers and story can pay handsome creative dividends. For Ruin, co-directors and co-writers Courtin-Wilson and Cody based themselves in Cambodia, where they also worked with local actors.

The resulting lovers-on-the-lam story is considerably more raw and experimental than Mordaunt’s 2013 crowd-pleaser. Like Hail, it is both harsh and tender, hopeful and despairing, grittily realistic and expressionistically poetic.

The male lead is a factory worker (unnamed though listed in the credits as Phirun and played by Rous Mony) who flees the scene after beating up his foreman during a workplace argument. In a parallel story strand, a young prostitute (credited as Sovanna and played by Sang Malen) escapes after being bullied by her brutal pimp and locked in a lavatory, where she ingeniously turns her impromptu prison cell into an electrified trap for her jailer. So far, so harsh.

The two characters meet on the street, though in a manner as far removed from the usual movie ‘meet cute’ scenario imaginable: they find themselves walking alongside one another as wordlessly they walk down the street through a night market, as if fate has brought them to this point. From then on they’re companions and quickly lovers, travelling up a river and into the rainforest in a bid to escape the danger and madness of the city.

Courtin-Wilson and Cody paint Cambodia as a violent and misogynistic place, where women are brutalised and treated as sexual chattel. Not only are the local men not to be trusted, neither are the western tourists. The couple’s first night in a rough shelter leads to an attempted rape in the morning (the attacker is met with swift retribution via multiple stabbings), while later she crushes the head of an abusive Englishman when a paid sexual encounter turns ugly. These are the justified killings, committed in self-defence.

More challenging, in terms of audience identification, is a scene where Phiryun slits the throat of an innocent fisherman. This will be hardly surprising to anyone who saw Hail, about a former convict trying to go straight: Courtin-Wilson is fascinated with criminality (his earlier documentary, Bastardy, was also about a sometime criminal, the aboriginal actor Jack Charles), but crucially he’s also interested in his characters’ struggle to find a kind of redemption and a sense of peace. It’s a struggle they sometimes win, sometimes lose.

An adventurous and unpredictable mixture of hardcore realism and expressionistic, quasi-abstract sound design and music and image is turning into a striking signature style for the Melbourne-based Courtin-Wilson.

This writer will never forget one startling moment from Hail – a sudden insert of a horse plummeting towards the ground as if skydiving without a parachute, a metaphorical representation of the protagonist’s state of mind and loss of self-control.

There’s nothing quite so surrealistic in Ruin, but one scene gives you some of the flavour: out of nowhere, we’re suddenly given a massively long-held shot of a river, with no context to help us make sense of it. Just as we’ve decided this must be a dream image or similar figment of the imagination, the camera slowly pulls back to reveal that we’re literally on the prow of a boat and the characters have left the city and are travelling up river. Ah, but of course!

For Courtin-Wilson and Cody, film is not just about storytelling (though it is, of course, partly), but also about creating experiences that can’t be translated into any other art form. That makes them an admirably unusual team in a national cinema too often dominated by rhetoric around ‘the script’ while underplaying the importance of direction and notions of the cinematic.

While their uncompromising approach and embrace of experimentalism is unlikely to lead to commercial success, on current evidence they are genuine auteurs with, let’s hope, a productive career ahead.