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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Connecting Cambodia's Past and Present

Aiko Doden

Oct. 27, 2016

The 29th Tokyo International Film Festival kicked off this week with more than 200 films on offer. A new feature of the festival this year is the anthology film. The theme is living together in Asia.

Sotho Kulikar is a Cambodian director on the project. She made her award-winning debut at the festival in 2014. Kulikar has returned with a new work, a collaboration with directors from Japan and the Philippines. What drives Kulikar to make films?

Kulikar's latest film is called Beyond the Bridge. The bridge still stands in Phnom Penh as a land mark built by Japanese assistance.

The story begins on the bridge in the early 1990's. The main character is a Japanese engineer who helped to rebuild the bridge after it was destroyed in the civil war. He recalls that time of war in Cambodia.

While working on the original bridge, he fell in love with a Cambodian woman. He had promised her that they would marry. But the civil war intensified under Pol Pot's rule, and the lovers were torn apart.

The bridge was first built in1963 with Japanese aid and became a familiar sight. People in Phnom Penh called it “the Japanese Bridge.” But as the war intensified in the 1970s, the bridge was bombed and destroyed. It was rebuilt with Japanese assistance in the 1990s, after a peace treaty was signed.

Doden asked the director, "Bridge is both physical and symbolic. What do you mean by 'here', and what is meant by 'there?' What is the bridge connecting?"

Kulikar said, "The bridge is a symbolic, but it's also a physical connection because the bridge is a connection between here and there, between the past and the present, between mother and daughter, between generations."

Kulikar was born the year the bridge was bombed. And she lost her father to the genocide when she was two years old.

"I never dared to ask my mom, because I didn’t want to bring tears to her," Kulikar said. "I think that if I could not bring a solution to her, I should not bring tears to her. So, I never asked her. To talk about genocide – it’s not something that Cambodian people would want to talk about, Cambodian people, our tradition, is that the bad thing should be buried. The broken thing should be thrown away."

After she learned about her father's death, she decided to confront history. In her directorial debut The Last Reel, she showed the reconciliation between the daughter who knew nothing about the genocide, and her father, who took part in it.

"As a Cambodian, it’s very hard to see that," said Kulikar. "Because my family is my country, and it's affected every single Cambodian family. I think emotionally, I need to build myself up back again first before I am pushing into the next movie. Because my next movie is still about Cambodia. It’s still about Cambodian culture, Cambodian identity and the history."

One important metaphor in the film is kintsukuroi, a traditional Japanese technique of ceramic repair using gold. The crack is repaired with lacquer filling and then covered with gold. The technique does not conceal the scar, but gives new life to the pottery.

Fukuda, the Japanese character in the film, describes the technique, “If an object is broken and repaired, we often try to hide the cracks. With kintsukuroi, the breakage and the repair are seen as a part of an object's history."

Kulikar said, "The scar for Cambodian people never goes away. The scar for my mother of losing the love of her life, never goes away. The scar that I have of not having my father, not knowing, never have a male role in my life, never goes away. But I accept it. So, it’s the same of kintsukuroi, the pottery – you didn't hide the scar – you made the scar, the scar is there, you just make it a beautiful art. It’s the same in Cambodia, it’s even more so meaningful to our people back at home."

Today, half the population of Cambodia is under the age of 24. In other words, they did not live through Pol Pot’s regime.

In making this film, Kulikar went out of her way to work with members of this younger generation.

"To be honest, I didn’t make the film to give the messages," Kulikar said. "For me, making the film is because I believe in that film because it touches my heart, and because I think, because I believe that if it touches my heart, it will touch their heart, too. And you just try to find how you tell that story to connect with the young generation. To lead them to want to know about the whole history."

Doden asked, "By 'story', you mean story of Cambodia?"

"Yes," said Kulikar. "Story of Cambodia."

By producing a film on Cambodia’s redemption from the past, Kulikar finds herself now capable of embracing the past and the present.