An old Chinese proverb warns: “When you set out to seek revenge, first dig two graves.”
Revenge—and justice—have been two of the most difficult issues for Cambodia since 1979, when the Khmer Rouge were driven from power, ending four years of mayhem and murder in which virtually every Khmer born before 1975 became a perpetrator, a victim, or both. For thirty years, Khmers have had to decide how to live side-by-side with the people responsible for the deaths and suffering of their loved ones.
This question becomes even more relevant as Cambodia moves towards the trial of a handful of surviving Khmer Rouge leaders by an international tribunal. Many Khmers want to see justice done and the guilty punished. Others would like to avoid stirring up old hatreds and possibly renewed violence.
“The Red Sense” by director Tim Pek, a resident of Australia, deals with the Khmer Rouge legacy from the point of view of the nearly one million Khmers living abroad. Not all of the refugees who made it to Thailand, and eventually were resettled in other countries, were blameless victims escaping the Khmer Rouge. Dr. Hang S. Ngor and Dith Pran, in their respective books about the Khmer Rouge period, both described how whole units of Khmer Rouge fought their way across the border and entered refugee camps, hoping to be resettled.
In his film, Tim Pek asks the question: What would you do if you discovered that the person who killed your family is living near you in a foreign country? “The Red Sense” is about Melear, a thirty-something Khmer woman living in Australia, who discovers that her father’s killer is living freely in a first world country—an opportunity her father was never given. The film deals with her personal struggle as she tries to decide what the correct course of action is. Should she turn him in to the authorities? Take revenge? Forgive and forget?
The film is the directing debut for co-author, Tim Pek, himself, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge genocide. “I was born in 1975, the year Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge,” explains Pek. Like all other citizens of Phnom Penh, Tim and his family were forcibly evacuated from the city and organized into labor groups in the countryside. “We escaped to a Khoaidang refugee camp, in Aranyapratet, Thailand in 1984.”
Although members of his extended family were killed in the holocaust, Tim’s mother, father, and older sister, born in 1972, all survived.
The Khmer Rouge period was ended by a Vietnamese invasion in 1979. Many Khmers say their lives did not improve much under their new Communist masters, and so they sought refuge abroad. In 1984, when Tim’s family was making their perilous escape to Thailand, much of the country was still held by the Khmer Rouge. In fact, the final Khmer Rouge surrender did not come until 1997, when the last kilometers of land were handed over to government control.
Tim said the story for “The Red Sense” was taken from his own experiences, and those of his friends and family. “We lived in a Khmer community in Melbourne. We attended a Khmer temple, and were advised by Khmer Monks. On Saturdays, I attended Khmer school with the other Cambodian children, learning to read and write our mother tongue,” he explains. “But even in Australia, the adults talked often of the Khmer Rouge period, because they wanted us to know about our heritage, and to never forget what happened.”
Each member of the crew had a different reason for wanting to do the film, and for feeling “The Red Sense” was important.
“I think the Khmer Rouge time is a powerful memory in the hearts of older people, and they will never forget and forgive,” says Sarina Luy, who plays Melear. “I really think this film is very important for overseas Khmers, especially all the teenagers should know about the history and the difficulties that our poor people have gone through.”
Kaply Mon, who plays Odom Chen, Melear's lover, says that three of his brothers were killed by the Khmer Rouge. “My family always talks about this.”
Narith Eng, who plays Chen Vann, the Khmer Rouge killer, came to Australia in 1989. “Its hard to say if young people living in Cambodia will understand. For example, my son is very young. He doesn't understand much about Khmer Rouge, the torture, the hardships. But this movie is very important for people who lost their loved ones, to understand, to regain their conscience.”
As for forgive and forget, Narith Eng has this to say about the real Khmer Rouge killers. “If I knew the killer, I think I would take revenge. They need to pay the price.
“The Red Sense” was filmed in Australia, with real Khmer actors and actresses. For realism, and to help promote the Khmer language, Tim elected to have 80% of the dialogue in Khmer (with English subtitles). The film is scheduled for an independent release in Australia, along with a public release in Phnom Penh.
Tim said he made the film to educate the young Khmers living abroad. But, he feels the film also has a powerful message for the Khmers still living in Cambodia. “I want them to open up, to forgive and forget and move on.”
How will Cambodians react? “It’s a very different movie, not their typical type of movie,” says the director. “I believe many Khmer youngsters still holding a grudge for the loss of their loved ones, and it’s a heart wrenching situation. They wrestle with the question, whether to seek justice or just move on. I only hope that this little film will bring a new wave of hope and inspiration.”
“The Red Sense” was written by Tim Pek and Rithy Dourng. You can see the film trailer and photos at: http://www.theredsensemovie.com