An extraordinary film with an even more remarkable backstory, the sci-fi adventure “Karmalink” is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
Though I hesitate to recommend Karmalink to mainstream audiences — it traverses too far off the beaten path and is often more experiential than narratively satisfying — it’s an absolute must-see for the right kind of viewer.
The first thing you need to know is that this is an enigmatic sci-fi drama that’s designed to make you think, and you should prepare to be left with more questions than answers.
Part of what makes this film so unique is that it takes place in Phnom Penh and is, in fact, the first science fiction film ever made in Cambodia. Interestingly, though it’s a foreign language film with a Khmer cast, it’s the feature film debut of American filmmaker Jake Wachtel, which he co-wrote with Christopher Larsen (The Long Walk).
California native Wachtel became inspired to make the film while teaching a film course in Cambodia for children living in disadvantaged areas of the city (part of the Filmmakers Without Borders initiative). He became compelled to tell a story about the place and the people he had grown to love.
Having read Kazuo Ishiguro’s dystopian sci-fi novel Never Let Me Go, he began dreaming of his own futuristic story that combined his interest in Cambodia, Buddhism, reincarnation, and the implications of technology.
Karmalink is about a teenage Cambodian boy who teams up with a street-smart girl from the same poor neighborhood to help unravel a mystery he believes is hidden in his past-life dreams.
Once Wachtel had the concept, he enlisted his two favorite students to star in the film and even invited them to help craft the script.
Leng Heng Prak plays Leng Heng, the 13-year-old boy who shares his name and many of the actor’s personality traits. In the story, Leng Heng is a shy, artistic dreamer who believes he experiences memories 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. But his community is set to be relocated to make space for a new bullet train to Beijing. While his mom organizes protests, Leng Heng hatches his own plan to help save their home.
He decides to use the clues in his dreams to find a golden statue he believes his past self has stolen and buried. He enlists the help of his friends, promising adventure, and fortune. And when he meets a clever orphan girl, Srey Leak (played by another of Wachtel’s students, the cool and confident Strey Leak Chitth), he’s convinced she’s the key to helping them put all the pieces together.
She claims to be great at finding stuff, and she’s a good enough salesman to secure a hefty cut of the treasure plus compensation for her time.
Although Leng Heng’s friends aren’t thrilled about the addition of this new member, who they dub The Detective, Leng Heng forms an instant connection with her.
Though both Prak and Chitth make their professional acting debut in this film, Wachtel does a fantastic job eliciting heartfelt, believable performances from the young actors.
In fact, in a film with some mighty impressive visual effects and stunning cinematography, these performances are what really makes this such a compelling watch.
The developing emotional bond between Srey Leak and Leng Heng is the true heart of the film, and it’s quite beautiful.
As mentioned, this film looks tremendous.
In this futuristic Cambodia, the wealthy have access to the world’s most advanced technology using augmented nanotech. And when this tech is used, it’s superbly done, seamlessly blending polished CGI with realistic backgrounds and masterful use of lighting and color.
Leng Heng believes this nanotech can get him closer to unlocking the mysteries of the lost treasure. Referred to as “nanobugs”, the small electronic devices attach to the forehead like a third eye and allow users to see into dreams and experience convincing augmented reality.
The creator of the tech, Dr. Vattanak Sovann (Sahajak Boonthanakit), was obsessed with making it easier for people to connect with their past lives and harness the memories contained within multiple lifetimes — thus obtaining spiritual enlightenment. Leng Heng is also convinced that he is the recent reincarnation of Dr. Vattanak.
KARMALINK begins as a youthful, GOONIES-esque adventure and ends up tackling heady ideas of spiritualism and philosophy in a climactic marriage of metaphysics and science. It’s all very fascinating, even if it gets a little lost exploring its deeper themes.
But, if the execution isn’t perfect, there’s some real thought-provoking stuff here.
The obsession with living a technology-enhanced life feels very akin to drug addiction. While Vattanak was consumed by the study of past lives to form a deeper connection to the universe and to all of humanity, his technology allows people to disconnect from reality and from other people. It’s far more isolating than it is uniting.
The only thing that feels real in this world is the human interactions between the young and those too poor to afford the technology.
While sometimes flawed in its storytelling, Karmalink excels when it comes to production values.
The film is beautifully shot, and the setting is perfect. Key scenes were shot at the city’s impressive National Olympic Stadium complex, which once hosted opulent spectacles during Cambodia’s “Golden Age” in the 1960s. In a tragic but fitting contrast for a film about the highs and lows of the human condition, the Stadium was also the scene of appalling horrors during the 1975-79 rule of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime.
Karmalink is also aided considerably by its moody, atmospheric score.
Wachtel wrote Karmalink after embarking on a meditation retreat.
Making the film then became its own kind of spiritual journey.
Sadly, as he was completing post-production in late 2020, the film’s talented young star, Leng Heng Prak — who Wachtel had grown to care for deeply — passed away and never got to see the completion of the film he was so proud to be a part of.
After making a film that celebrates the importance of human connection, it’s a heartbreaking reminder of how precious the time we have on earth is. The only thing that matters, the only thing we get to leave behind, is the lives we touch along the way.
I hope Wachtel and Prak meet again in another life.
And I hope you’ll seek out this beautiful film if you’re in the mood for something truly unique, surprising, and intriguing.