- November 17, 2023 10:00 AM
- November 14, 2019 4:29 AM
- March 11, 2021 2:10 PM
PHNOM PENH – Two decades after he shot the movie City of Ghosts in Cambodia, Hollywood actor and director Matt Dillon brings old memories back to life while staying in the country for a workshop in July 2023. He can still recall the generosity of the Cambodian people when he was directing the first movie he had co-written.
“I find Cambodians to be incredibly generous in spirits, both now and back in the days,” he said on July 8 during his visit to Phnom Penh for a screening of his 2002’s drama.
City of Ghosts tells the story of Jimmy (Matt Dillon), who flees the U.S. after being caught in an insurance scam, looking for his business partner and mentor Marvin (James Caan) in Cambodia. He discovers a mysterious, hostile environment where even the most polished criminal can end up on deadly ground. As he searches, he may never return.
The film was set in Cambodia due to Dillon’s fascination with the country after he paid an unexpected visit in 1993 while on a journey across Southeast Asia. Back then, the country was still devastated by years of civil wars and the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime. The country was in the throes of reconstruction.
“There was instability, but there was something magical about the place that still goes to a rebirth,” said Dillon, adding that the future of the country was uncertain as many criminals were believed to be hiding there, which gave him the idea for the plot of his film.
“It happened very organically,” he stated. “The story that I wrote was just right here. It's the combination of the right time in my life to tell the story, to direct the film.”
“For example, the character Jimmy was based on someone I knew who was based in Cambodia but fled to Thailand.”
Character development is the key element
Dillon considers that choosing actors who can develop strong characters rather than be friendly on screen is crucial to the success of any film. In Cambodia, the cast of the film was challenging because local actors were working at the Royal Theater and had a very strong acting style which was not in line with the roles they needed to play.
“So, it’s better to find a non-actor,” said Dillon. “I do believe everybody is capable of performing because we do it every day in our life. I am not trying to make them actors but believable and real.”
Kem Sereyvuth, who appears as a charismatic cyclo driver in the movie, was one of them. In real life, he was a motorbike driver living on the outskirts of Phnom Penh who happened to meet Dillon and was later cast in the movie. Four years after the release of City of Ghosts, Sereyvuth had another role in another American movie called Holly. Sadly, Sereyvuth, died of hepatitis C in 2022, at the age of 57.
Dillon said Cambodia remains an important place for him as he made his first film there. He was happy to be in the country again to meet local filmmakers, while he has been crowned patron of the 12th Cambodian International Film Festival (CIFF).
He will make the best of his time here to host workshops and masterclasses with film students and discuss the potential growth of the film industry in the kingdom.
“Things have changed dramatically here, for the better. A lot of development has happened,” he said. “It's beautiful to see the development, and at times, it's a little bit concerning. I feel like it's a really tricky balance because there were beautiful things that captured my imagination in Cambodia, almost 30 years ago. It's great to see that a middle class is emerging. However, they have to save what's important and not throw it out. It’s about preservation and development.”