MIFF 2014: Ruin

The creation of Ruin, the new collaborative effort from Australian director Amiel Courtin-Wilson and producer Michael Cody, is absolutely intrinsic to its successes. What makes it such a splendid, sublime affair has so much to do with the process of its formation that it’s almost impossible to consider the film and its birthing as seperate events. Concieved and shot in Cambodia, telling authentic Khmer stories via Khmer bodies, Ruin is a fluid procedure in constant evolution, even as it screens in its finished format. Both Courtin-Wilson and Cody spent time in Cambodia where they wrote and cast the film, scouted for locations and sought financing within a shared time frame, utilising the limited time and resources to the film’s advantage. Very much an art project, Ruin assumed its form in the editing room, a process not lost on someone like Terrence Malick, a director whose films curl up inside the belly of Ruin in the most inspiring of ways.

Immediately, Ruin shares the premise of Malick’s Badlands, two ill-fated lovers meet and are tied together through the violent acts they commit as well as their entanglement in the cinematic fabric. Initially the pair are disparate spirits, each wandering the streets of Phnom Penh, tumbling in and out of sadness and desperation. Sovanna (Sang Malen) is a prostitute who, after being beaten by her pimp, kills him in a silent electrical exchange, effectively beginning a thunderous escape from the inevitable. Similarly, Phirun (Rous Mony) is a mining worker who dabbles in petty armed robberies. One evening, Sovanna locks her gaze upon Phirun as he wanders the silent streets, leading to a voluntary orbit of one another’s space, a curiosity that builds into a fiery and confused eloping.

Courtin-Wilson and Cody mark the beginning of their journey with a potent tone of romantic doom, their initial exchange, while silent by mouth, speaks volumes through their body language and accompanying music. Walking side by side through the market streets, Sovanna and Phirun stroll to a mournful waltz, a dark series of cello swoons that elude to passion and destruction in the same moment. From here the pair are inseperable, chained to one another by invisible links as they eventually stray from the streets of Phnom Penh and spill out into the Cambodian wilderness.

Like Courtin-Wilson’s Hail that came before it, Ruin is not a pleasant or comforting experience. Furious in tone and ruthless in its onscreen violence, the film is not for the faint of heart. Moments of physical combustion and fear are evenly offset by a conjoined haptic quality. Ruin talks to you through your senses more than anything else, as its ambitiousness reaches for nothing less than the sublime. Through a combination of an invasive hand-held camera and breathless, slow-motion lyrical beauty, Courtin-Wilson and Cody achieve the swell of romanticism within the belly of the beast, an experience reminiscent of the dangerous intoxication of Cambodia itself. Cerebrally you interact with the pernicious effects of Cambodian socio-economic rebuilding post-Khmer Rouge and its impact on these characters, while sensorially you respond to the intensity of their passion, the hope that their combined efforts will propel them forth from the muck.

The most affecting sequence in the film lies at its epicentre, when Sovanna and Phirun rent a cheap hotel room for the night. Even though the scene only lasts five minutes or so, it’s captured and edited in such a way as to feel like an entire evening. Much like Mookie’s exploration of his girlfriend’s body with an ice cube in Do the Right Thing, both Sovanna and Phirun explore one another’s core, through playful games, physical intermingling and the sharing of experiences. Removed from the calamity that ensnares them, they are ultimately human, each seeking a fragility of being that is bolstered by the presence of another. It provides a mirror upon which other, more violent moments are reflected, particularly Sovanna’s encounter with a Western male in a desperate moment of self-sacrifice. It’s the only point that almost pushes the film’s masochism into unbearable territory, and while the commodification of Cambodian bodies via prostitution by white men is a truly problematic issue, the sequence almost ventures into caricature.

Despite its overarching parade of trauma, Ruin is ultimately a humanist film. Its final sequence defines the desires of its characters more eloquently than they ever could themselves, a yearning for the ritual that befalls most in this life; a curing of the illness of self through entanglement with another. Unfortunately for Sovanna and Phirun, such a life can only be imagined or experienced vicariously. They are doomed by a system that can only drown them; the more they struggle for release, the more they are weighed down. Courtin-Wilson and Cody have constructed with Ruin the kind of film that will alienate many and reach very few. Yet, even despite its grim and dismal tone, it’s the kind of film that points towards a bright future; a sensorial, altruistic and ultimately affecting piece of work that evokes the very essence of the cinematic experience.

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