Art & Entertainment

The Separate Lives Of A Cambodian Tuk-tuk Driver And His Wife

Cambodian filmmaker Kavich Neang’s short film 'Three Wheels' explores the trauma of forced marriages during the Khmer Rouge

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Separate Lives: Screengrab from the film Three Wheels
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Three Wheels is a 20 minute-long short film that won multiple awards in the international film festival circuit during 2015-16. Directed by Cambodian filmmaker Kavich Neang and set against the backdrop of the Khmer Rouge—a despotic regime that tore apart the social and political fabric of Cambodia during the late 1970s—the film focuses on the lives of an old couple who were forcefully married during those years. The pain of losing one’s vibrant youth to a despot’s whims is reflected throughout the film. Neang speaks to Abhik Bhatta­harya about his experience of making the film. Edited excerpts.

Why did you choose to make a film that focuses on forced marriages?

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I discovered the story of my parents who got married during the Khmer Rouge, in the 1970s. I was surprised because being married during the period mostly meant being forced into it. As not many people talk about forced marriages, it remains a hidden fact in the community. My research showed that there were several couples who got forcefully married during the regime. People don’t want to recall those memories of pain and loss but I wanted to bring it up.

My idea was to give a sense of the politics of the time without directly showing it. My focus was the trauma that the people bore due to such marriages. In my film, I show two old people who may like each other as friends but not as a couple. But they don’t have the option to leave. In Cambodia, and even in India, you find that marriage is sacrosanct.

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Still, a time comes when one feels like breaking out of all that binds one, all that is compulsory. This was my intention behind showing how, after 40 years of marriage, they contemplate parting ways.

At the end of the film, the man escapes but the woman can’t...

In our culture and society, men have more privileges than women. If a man and a woman stay together without getting married, the woman will be questioned, not the man: people and society will judge her. In the film as well, the man talks about leaving but the woman merely asks for a photo shoot and stays back.

Is there any significance to the radio playing in the background throughout the first 6-7 minutes of the film?

The radio is actually playing a propaganda song from the Khmer Rouge. I tried to show how the memory of those songs can be haunting. You will be able to connect to the song if you look at the footage: an empty street where the old man is driving his tuk-tuk. Whenever I search for images of the Khmer Rouge, these empty streets come up and I attempted to bring it back, in a sense, to the current situation. Though the political situation has changed, memories of the regime are living trauma for the people who experienced it.

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The camera work is remarkably politically informed insofar as it establishes the city through the journey of a tuk-tuk...

Three Wheels is the story of a tuk-tuk driver and these are the things that he sees regularly during his journey. These are his points of everyday interactions. And while choosing shooting locations, I always thought that it is not only about the couple, rather it’s about the country, and to show what it is constituted of is my motive as the filmmaker. The tuk-tuk, for me, is symbolic— as if it carried trauma from the past and has borne it throughout its life.

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One haunting scene is of the man entering a memory where he finds himself in a bar/restaurant which has lots of flashing lights but there is no sound, no people...

He is recalling, for a moment, the happy days before the Khmer Rouge. He had had a girlfriend then. There is a continuous longing for those days. So, when he meets the dancer girl in his tuk-tuk, he perhaps remembers his girlfriend and goes back to that time for a while.
The very next day, you find him dyeing his hair. These are the metaphors of a missing youth when he was forced to marry. The couple stays in the same house but separately. You can see the mosquito net that separates them. So, that vacant bar and the dancing lights are just flashes of lost memories.

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Candles are yet another constant component in his life. Even when his wife tells him that the “power is back”, he does not extinguish them.

The candles complement the footage and the lighting as the film was mostly shot during night-time. This is his politics: not extinguishing the candle even when the power returns is symbolic of his denial to be a part of the house. He is there physically but his mind wanders in those days before the Khmer Rouge, when he had found the love of his life.

Another major reason for using candles was the lack of electricity supply in our childhood. We were dependent on candles. Perhaps my memories of power cuts also got reflected through its constant usage. Candles, to this day, continue to represent the hope of having the future that they wanted for themselves.

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(This appeared in the print edition as "Memories by CANDLELIGHT")

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