THAT Jake Wachtel’s Karmalink is the opening title of Venice International Film Critics’ Week is a good sign of promise. It is an enigmatic sci-fi drama that will leave you with many things to ponder.
The story follows a 13-year-old boy, Leng Heng (the late Leng Heng Prak), who claims to see glimpses of his past lives through his dreams. He and his family live in a poor district of a near-future version of Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, and his community is set to relocate 15 kilometres away to make space for a new railway connection to Beijing.
Leng Heng convinces his friends that finding a golden Buddha that he has seen in his dreams may save their homes, and they seek out help from a street-smart girl, Srey Leak (Srey Leak Chitth).
Through accurate production design and well-crafted special effects, the world depicted by Karmalink is populated by drones, gigantic QR codes, simultaneous translation devices and the widespread use of virtual reality. It is a place where the rich can avail of advanced nanotechnology and the poor still live in slums, surrounded by dirt and waste.
To record Leng Heng’s dreams and discover the secrets of his past lives, Srey Leak steals Leng Heng’s sister’s AUGR (short for “augmented reality”), a sort of forehead microchip that works through the injection of special “nanobugs”. During his oneiric explorations, Leng Heng meets Vattanak Sovann (Sahajak Boonthanakit), a neuroscientist and the inventor of the Connectome, a mysterious device containing “a digital replica of one’s consciousness” that can open “a path to enlightenment” through neural connections with the user’s past lives.
Despite the many interesting parts of this engaging premise, cracks start to appear towards the end of the first half. The search for the golden Buddha, which is mostly carried out by the two young lead characters, sees them having little trouble in accessing information and breaking into abandoned or inhabited places.
They travel in and around the city and meet many adults on their way, none of whom ever questions their actions or asks why the children are buying nanotech. They even manage to sneak into Vattanak and his assistant Sofia (Cindy Sirinya Bishop)’s lab, which it isn’t properly guarded and so is easily accessed by two teens. The whole search is generally too smooth, with few obstacles to overcome. One hint comes after the other until the ending.
“The world of Karmalink is populated by drones, gigantic QR codes and simultaneous translation devices”
The cinematography in the film really is stunning, and the grim score backs this up. The two young leads – who speak Khmer throughout – are particularly impressive actors. By comparison, the English-language cast – Boonthanakit and Bishop – deliver rather flat performances, sounding a bit too cold-hearted in some of the most tense scenes.
Altogether, Karmalink had the potential to be a gem. Yet the narrative’s weaknesses overshadow much of the second half, leaving it as more of a rock in need of a good polish. The idea of intertwining Buddhist reincarnation and nanotech is certainly original and the striking contrast between a hyper-technological world and some of the poorest people in society is interesting to watch, but these strengths aren’t enough to make Karmalink as compelling as it should be.
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