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The Star eCentral: Movie Reviews

'The Killing Fields': It changed all our lives

Posted: 05 Feb 2014 08:00 AM PST

Thirty years on, those involved in making The Killing Fields look back at its legacy.

THE Killing Fields premiered 30 years ago as more than the first major film to explore the atrocities of Pol Pot's reign of terror in Cambodia in the 1970s.

The film "changed my life", said actor Sam Waterston, who earned an Oscar nomination playing New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg, one of the few American journalists left in Phnom Penh when the city fell to Khmer Rouge guerillas in 1975. Added Waterston: "I think it changed the lives of every single person involved in making it."

That would include Haing S Ngor, who won the Academy Award for supporting actor portraying Dith Pran, Schanberg's translator and journalistic partner, as well as director Roland Joffe, who remains involved with Cambodian charities.

Warner Home Video offers reminders of the film's storied creation and lasting legacy with the recently released 30th anniversary Blu-ray edition of The Killing Fields, which earned seven Oscar nominations, including wins for Ngor, Jim Clark for editing, and Chris Menges for his documentary-style cinematography.

British producer David Puttnam, who had won the Best Picture Oscar for 1981's Chariots Of Fire, explained that The Killing Fields was the movie "I had been waiting to do."

As a teenager, he had been gobsmacked by Gillo Pontecorvo's 1966 semi-documentary-style war film The Battle Of Algiers. The film, Puttnam said, "changed my attitude towards cinema. It was the first film I saw that allowed me to believe that cinema could be something more. You didn't know you if you were watching a movie or not."

He felt the story of Schanberg and Dith would have the same effect on audiences. Though Schanberg and other journalists were allowed to leave Phnom Penh, Dith was among the hundreds of thousands of Cambodians forced to leave the cities and work in the labour camps of the communist Khmer Rouge.

Puttnam first read about them in a small piece in Time magazine. "It was the photograph of the two men hugging in the refugee camp, and it said an American journalist is reunited with his interpreter," the producer recalled.

The article and Pulitzer Prize-winner Schanberg's subsequent New York Times Magazine piece, The Death And Life Of Dith Pran, piqued the interest of several filmmakers.

"I went with the British group," said Schanberg, now 80, who still works as a freelance journalist. "These people who were making it were really good people. They weren't doing it to make a buck. They didn't make a lot of bucks. I never found a way to thank them for what they did."

Bruce Robinson's script for The Killing Fields attracted attention from top-line directors, but Puttnam eventually chose Joffe, who until then had directed mostly theatre and TV movies. Puttnam gave Robinson's dense script to Joffe.

"Three days later, I got this long, three-page letter detailing the strengths and weaknesses of the script," Puttnam said. "It was absolutely brilliant."

Joffe, who earned an Oscar nomination for his work, realised The Killing Fields wasn't just a war drama but a love story between Schanberg and Dith.

"If you make it a story about friendship and how that exists among men, you will make something indelible," Joffe recalled in a recent interview.

Though they felt pressure to cast a Hollywood star as Schanberg, Puttnam and Joffe went with Waterston, who they felt not only resembled Schanberg but also captured the spirit and passion of the journalist.

Waterston, who remained friendly with Dith until his death in 2008, remembered that Dith had hoped – before the cast was decided – that Schanberg might be played by an actor like Kirk Douglas.

"When I first met him, he said something about the fact that Sydney had a very big heart, and then he hit me really hard in the chest," Waterston said. "It was literally like he was trying to put Sydney's heart into me."

But the real casting gamble turned out to be Ngor, a doctor in Cambodia who suffered the same horrors as Dith under the Khmer Rouge, eventually escaping to Thailand and arriving in the United States in 1980.

Ngor had never acted before. Casting director Pat Golden spotted him at a Cambodian wedding in Long Beach.

"I talked to Pat Golden and said I think we should do an improvisation with Haing," Joffe said. "He didn't want to do it at first, but I kind of lulled him into doing something – mainly getting him to describe a few things, and he basically began to act them out. I realised this man was a born actor."

But Ngor didn't want to be in the movie.

"I had to do a lot of arm twisting to get him to be in it," Joffe said. "I said, 'You have to play this part. You have to do it for your country. It will be difficult, but I'll be there.' "

Emotions ran high for the Cambodian refugees who worked on the film. Ngor broke into tears during the scene in which a young girl playing a soldier for the Khmer Rouge pulls out a tomato plant Dith had been growing.

"He suddenly stopped in the middle of the scene," Joffe said. Ngor couldn't do it anymore. The cold expression on the young girl's face hit too close to home. In the moment, Ngor thought she really was a Khmer Rouge soldier. But Joffe eased his fears and eventually he completed the scene.

Rounding out the cast were John Malkovich as photojournalist Al Rockoff and Julian Sands as British journalist Jon Swain. Sands said the director sent the actors to Thailand a month before shooting started to get immersed in the place and the truth of the story.

"I remember the profound impact of visiting the Khmer refugee camps on the Thai-Cambodian border and talking to survivors about their experiences with Haing Ngor as translator," said Sands from Puerto Rico, where he is filming the NBC pirate series Crossbones with Malkovich.

Eleven years after winning his Oscar, Ngor was shot to death outside his apartment near Dodger Stadium. Waterston recalled that beyond his co-star's "tremendous spine", one could also see an "unbelievable gentleness of spirit".

After completing the film, Waterston and Joffe became involved with Cambodian charities. Joffe still visits the country often and with friends started the Cambodian Trust, which makes artificial limbs and operates a school for prosthetics. Waterston, who followed his long stint on NBC's Law & Order with HBO's The Newsroom, has lent his support to an American advocacy organisation Refugees International. Puttnam frequently visits Cambodia as the prime ministerial trade envoy to that country as well as Vietnam and Laos.

Before The Killing Fields, Schanberg said, Cambodians "never knew during their time under the Khmer Rouge whether anybody in the outside world knew about what was happening to them. The truth was, that was pretty true. The movie changed that." – Los Angeles Times/McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Bullets Over Petaling Street: A scary and exciting shoot

Posted: 05 Feb 2014 08:00 AM PST

Chen Han Wei's take on his character in the movie.

THE whole cast of Bullets Over Petaling Street gets to go crazy with their characters. "Everyone except me," groused Chen Han Wei.

"Mine is the most normal character you will find in the movie. I play a very ordinary, goody two-shoes sort of guy next door," Chen, 44, offered about his role as mild-mannered restaurateur Xie Da Xiang, who operates Foo Tai Restaurant in the film.

"He is also a very romantic fellow, who still carries a torch for his childhood sweetheart (played by Debbie Goh)," added Chen, for whom the most memorable scene was the one he dubbed "locks of love" which was filmed on a flight of stairs with Goh.

Collaborating with Goh for the first time, Chen was impressed by her command of the script and her grasp of the character.

"Debbie is very clear about what she wants out of each scene and knows exactly what is required of her, and delivers her best at every shoot, so working with her was a breeze.

"Other cast members like William San and KK Wong were also fun to work with. I especially like that they are all straight-talking folks," said the multiple-award-winning actor (Singapore's Star Awards, 2001, 2005, 2009 and 2010).

"Making movies in Malaysia is such an enjoyable experience. Most notable were the exceptional teamwork and strong camaraderie between cast and crew," said Chen, who looks forward to more projects here and hopes that some weird and quirky roles will come his way.

Bullets also marked many firsts for Chen. Apart from being his Malaysian film debut, the action comedy also features Chen speaking in a mix of Mandarin, Cantonese and even Bahasa Malaysia for the first time.

Born and raised in Johor Baru, Chen has been plying his trade since age 18 in Singapore, where all Chinese productions are in Mandarin, with an occasional smattering of Hokkien in movies.

Fortunately, the personable chap has his Malaysian upbringing to thank for his easy familiarity with several Chinese dialects.

"Unlike Singaporean productions which are only in Mandarin, Malaysians like to use various dialects and languages. Luckily my mother is Cantonese, so I learnt how to speak the dialect," he mused, alternating effortlessly between Mandarin and Cantonese in a recent phone interview from Singapore.

Chen also spoke of how filming on location in Petaling Street was a special experience for him. "Running around trying to film our scenes in Petaling Street was no easy matter as there were always lots of people everywhere.

"Plus it was scary and exciting at the same time, as there was always the possibility of us bumping into real-life triad bosses!"

The lanky thespian recalled how he had to complete his scenes in 10 days, then rush back to Singapore to film Yes We Can!, a Lunar New Year TV series which is currently airing on Singapore's MediaCorp Channel 8 and Malaysia's Astro Shuang Xing (Ch 324).

Chen, who made his film debut last year in the Gilbert Chan-helmed Singaporean horror flick Ghost Child, already has some 80 television drama credits to his name. Upcoming projects include two more TV series, a year-end blockbuster, and some coaching clinics for newbies. 

Related story:

Debbie Goh: Lethal in heels

Matthew McConaughey to enter Gus Van Sant's dark forest

Posted: 05 Feb 2014 07:05 PM PST

The American star has won the lead role in Sea of Trees, a story of survival within Japanese surroundings.

A HOT contender in the Oscar race for 2014's Best Actor award with Dallas Buyers Club, Matthew McConaughey is to star opposite Ken Watanabe in Gus Van Sant's feature, which is set in Japan.

Sea of Trees will focus on the mystery surrounding Aokigahara, a dense woodland area that is famous for its unusually quiet nature, for its rocky caves, and as a traditional destination for those wishing to take their own lives.

The story, written by Chris Sparling of Buried and ATM, chronicles the journey of an American who sets off into Aokigahara, located at the base of Mount Fuji, with the intention of making it his last expedition.

But he meets another traveller on the way and together they resolve to escape the forest's dangerous, labyrinthine envinroment.

Gus Van Sant is to begin filming Sea of Trees in the next few weeks. – AFP Relaxnews

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