Cambodia (2018) Dir. Jimmy Henderson
It is remarkable how people in a position of privilege, wealth and power often have the loosest grip on their humanity, as if it is some kind of Faustian payoff – you can have all the material goods and influence you desire but at the cost of your soul. Unless there is another reason they place such little value on the lives of others…
Chinese Interpol detective Xin (Gu Shangwei) is working undercover to infiltrate a phone scam currently spreading in China, the origin of which is based in Phnom Penh in Cambodia. Just as Xin arrives at the gang’s HQ, the Cambodian police raid the building and take everyone prisoner, including Xin, who can’t afford to blow his cover. Fortunately, the tracker built into Xin’s watch allows Interpol colleague Detective Ly (Dy Sonita) to monitor his movements despite radio silence.
However, Xin has been taken to a remote jungle prison run by The Warden (Vithaya Pansringarm), who refuses to grant Xin a hearing and confiscates his watch. The prison has a history of prisoners mysteriously disappearing, and Xin soon discovers why – a group of inmates are selected to be taken out to the jungle and set free, but not out of kindness, they are in fact prey for a group of wealthy hunters, and Xin now has to rely on his wits to survive.
The Prey is the latest variation on The Hounds Of Zaroff aka The Most Dangerous Game, the 1924 short story by Richard Connell in which a Russian count uses people as prey for his bloodthirsty dogs. Italian born-Cambodian based writer-director Jimmy Henderson relocates the story to Cambodia, giving it a modern overhaul with The Warden believing he is providing a valid public service by ridding society of criminals, and just happens to line his pockets in the process.
Given the many historical atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and Phnom Penh in particular, it is hard not to feel some discomfort witnessing the unabated violence take place in this setting, not to mention the emotional and moral disconnect of the hunters. I don’t know if we can class this as tasteless, but it is a caveat emptor that needs heeding if you know your Cambodian history.
Not that I dare presume Henderson considered this when planning the film, and maybe others will be less sensitive about this. To Henderson’s credit, the film is really a scathing attack on corruption in modern day Cambodia and the continued marginalising of those on the fringes of society in remote jungle areas.
Being unashamedly beholden to the conventions of the action thriller genre, there is little room for things like character development, moral grandstanding, and nuance about this. There could have been a stronger case built for the jungle dwellers in their tiny shacks living under meagre conditions, when it is barely raised as an issue. Aside from a young deaf boy orphaned by the hunters, the presence of the villagers is sadly almost incidental.
Disguising The Warden’s clear sadism, he claims to be running a rehabilitation facility, and the happiness of everyone is a priority. If this was the case, why couldn’t Xin have alerted The Warden to his true identity and found a way to be sent free? The answer is easily found via The Warden’s unctuous, disingenuous grin and evasive verbiage when Ly shows up and he claims never to have heard of Xin, knowing full well he may be dead as they speak.
And so it begins, with only a few men making it into the jungle after an initial cull sees the slowest ones shot, but there are irrelevant as this is about Xin and a hapless fellow inmate’s game of survival. In true Rambo fashion, Xin adapts to the oppressive jungle surroundings with ease and with a bit of guile and help from his mate, the worm turns and the hunters become the hunted.
Whilst there is an air of predictability surrounding Xin’s journey, the rest of the film relies heavily on staple plot beats, like guns running out of ammo at critical points, escape routes conveniently in place at the right time, etc. Similarly, Ly as the lone prominent female is naturally top shelf totty, perfectly made up and groomed for the catwalk, whilst ending up a bargaining chip for bringing Xin into line. So much for her police rank if she ends up a helpless hostage that easily.
Maybe this is Henderson playing to the gallery but ultimately, this is a genre film where templates are there for a reason and by gawd, he is going to honour them. The result is a rather fun and pretence free 90 minutes of unbridled carnage, boasting set pieces large and small to deliver sufficient thrills and mindless spectacle, including one chap with his legs blown off, that defy the film’s meagre budget.
Xin is not just handy with a weapon he is a decent fighter too, making use of newcomer Gu Shangwei’s martial arts credentials in a couple of showcase punch ups, one taking place in the confines of a small pit! Throughout the whole film, Shangwei acquits himself well enough for a first timer, though it may be a coupled more films before he is seen a bona fide action star, depending on the projects he chooses.
Thai veteran Vithaya Pansringarm overshadows Shangwei as The Warden, absolutely a caricature villain but played so well that we do find ourselves hating him and rooting for Xin. The only thing about him is we never get to understand his connection to the jungle village which may or may not be insurgents against him, or how he has any jurisdiction over them.
Sometimes, picking holes in a film isn’t really worth the effort when its sole purpose is to distract us for 90-minutes and The Prey definitely does that. A tightly packed action flick, it has enough verve to give big budget affairs a run for their money.
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