Debuting at the Venice Film Festival in 2013 and winning the Orizzonti sidebar’s Special Jury Prize, Ruin (Michael Cody & Amiel Courtin-Wilson, 2013) promptly became the darling of film festival juries, if not audiences1, in Australia and overseas. It is oftentimes a deeply unpleasant, difficult film to watch, and equally difficult to define. Described alternately as a “romantic road movie”2 and “violent fairytale”,3 Ruin follows the hyperreal journey of Phirun (Rous Mony) and Sovanna (Sang Malen), two disaffected Cambodian youths forced into humid Phnom Penh and into each other’s lives.
The aftermath of the Cambodian genocide looms over Ruin, and trauma, despair and hopelessness serve as the contextual armature around which both characters’ stories are formed. We are introduced to Phirun when he is unceremoniously sacked from his job and kicked out of his rented room while his landlord conducts business, forcing him out onto the streets until he’s able to return home. Sovanna is a prostitute subjected to an amateur medical inspection by her pimp (Phanha Socheat), who declares her well enough to continue working despite her complaints of feeling unwell. He beats her savagely and locks her in the toilet where, after regaining consciousness, she creates a rudimentary electrical trap to kill him on his return. Sovanna flees the brothel and meets up with Phirun on the street. They do not speak, yet seem instinctively drawn to one another. He takes her back to his room so she can sleep, and leaves to work at his second job. Phirun’s landlord returns and attempts to rape Sovanna, spitting at her, “You are nothing; you are a piece of meat.” Phirun returns and stabs the landlord to death, and the two of them again escape to the streets, on the run from the law and their fractured, now entwined, lives.
The film’s visceral flashes of violence are transposed with languid, watery dream sequences that exist outside the narrative structure, as well as moments of charming domestic mundanity. They brush their teeth together in bed; she turns her eyelids inside out to try to scare him; she meows at him and he barks in return. Phirun promises Sovanna, “I will always protect you … you’re a human being. You’re not an animal. You are my blood. We are the same.” Yet when she later seeks direction from him, he has nothing, and reminds her she has also brought nothing to their situation. Sovanna vows to earn some money, the only way she can, and picks up a Western tourist (Johnny Brennan) in a bar while Phirun gets drunk.
The tourist is the revolting embodiment of the kind of man who would seek Asian children for sexual gratification. Pale, hairy and sweaty, he masturbates while Sovanna massages his head and barks instructions at her in English. He tells her they will have sex, without protection, and that she “might even enjoy it”. When she is unable to understand his orders, he grows belligerent, threatening to cut her head off and leave it by the side of the road. She appears detached as he has sex with her body, but returns to life when he is passed out, face down and naked on the bed, and stabs him multiple times in the back.
Though thematically and visually subtler than the defining films of the rape-revenge genre,4 Ruin follows a trajectory of sexual violence followed by vengeance: Sovanna kills the pimp who presumably trafficked and held her in sexual slavery; Phirun kills his landlord for attempting to rape her; she kills the tourist whose grotesque fetishes fuel the back-alley sex trade that enslaved her. No transgression against Sovanna goes unpunished: for every rape, or attempted rape, revenge. Meanwhile, the rain and ocean dream interludes metaphorically cleanse the protagonists of their trauma. It is likely no coincidence that “Phirun” and “Sovanna” respectively mean “rain” and “dream” in Khmer.
Sovanna’s name is not revealed during the film. Only in the credits do we discover it, and only in the context of her pimp, hitherto nameless and here referred to simply as “Sovanna’s pimp”. Jeremy Elphick points out that while both Sovanna and Phirun are “characterised by a sense of anonymity”, Phirun is placed as the “saintlike figure” and Sovanna as the “ceaseless victim”.5 Without a name, the character of Sovanna can serve to represent every girl trafficked into sexual servitude, stripped of agency and identity. She is a victim, certainly, but also victorious in escape and revenge.
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Ruin (2013 Australia/Cambodia 90 mins)
Prod. Co: Flood Projects, Hanuman Films Prod: Michael Cody & Amiel Courtin-Wilson Dir: Michael Cody & Amiel Courtin-Wilson Scr: Michael Cody & Amiel Courtin-Wilson Phot: Ari Wegner Ed: Sally Blenheim, Luca Cappelli & Simon Price Mus: Steve Benwell and Scott McCulloch
Cast: Rous Mony, Sang Malen, Johnny Brennan, Chiev Ouen, Phanha Socheat, Hun Sophy
- A Sydney Film Festival report describes a polarised audience, with 4:3 staff writers overwhelmingly labelling the film Not Recommended and Strongly Not Recommended; see Jeremy Elphick, “Ruin,” 4:3 (12 June 2014), https://fourthreefilm.com/2014/06/ruin/ ↩
- Stephanie Bunbury, “Australian Filmmakers Find Love Among the Ruin,” The Sydney Morning Herald (4 September 2013), https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/movies/australian-filmmakers-find-love-among-the-ruin-20130904-2t487.html ↩
- Jeremy Elphick, op. cit. ↩
- I Spit on Your Grave (Meir Zarchi, 1978), Ms .45 (Abel Ferrara, 1981), The Last House on the Left (Wes Craven, 1972, itself a remake of sorts of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, 1960), et al ↩
- ibid. ↩