Karmalink (2022) Film Review

Karmalink is a unique story that transcends the concept of rebirth and genre into a journey of what enlightenment means to the characters.

Karmalink (2022) Film Review
Karmalink (2022)

by Nuha Hassan

Jake Wachtel’s directorial debut Karmalink is set in a near-future Cambodia and follows two young kids as they embark on a journey that redefines the concept of memory and fantasy. These kids live in an underdeveloped area near the capital city, which has been built into a technologically advanced neighbourhood and people are engaged in augmented spaces to connect with people. The film is centred on the Buddhist concept of enlightenment, reincarnation, and the karmic flows that determine rebirth, and the story blends itself with a sci-fi lens to tell the story of cultural displacement and neo-colonialism. Karmalink is a unique story that transcends the concept of rebirth and genre into a journey of what enlightenment means to the characters.

The film begins with a man hooked up into a machine, followed by a dream sequence of a thief (Ros Mony) stealing a golden Buddha statue and a monk (Chear Sreng) confronts him. He runs out of the temple and buries it in the fields. Leng Heng (Leng Heng Prak) awakens from his dream and draws the statue on his notebook. He lives in a small house with his mother (Sveng Socheata), sisters, and grandma (Savern Oum) as part of a memory study conducted by Dr. Sophia (Cindy Sirinya Bishop). Leng Heng’s neighbourhood is being threatened with relocation to built high-speed rails from a Chinese developer and his mother is leading protests to stop the construction and displacement of her home. Srey Leak (Srey Leak Chhith) is an orphan who lives with her brother Kosal (So Sokvan), spends most of her time scavenging electronics and bartering them and selling cigarettes at nightclubs to pay rent. But when Kosal doesn’t bring his half of the rent money, Srey Leak and her brother are kicked out of their home and they find shelter elsewhere. Desperate to find the golden statue and bring fortune to Leng Heng’s family, he decides to work together with Srey Leak to find it, who is a self-proclaimed “young detective.” They trace back all of Leng Heng’s dreams to find where the golden statue might be buried and begin an adventure that is way beyond what they initially expected.

Even though Karmalink is about reincarnation and cultural displacement, it is about friendship. Both Leng Hend and Srey Park put their trust in each other and embark on a journey to build a strong friendship. Their dependence and trust are important due to the difficult situation their families are in, and the mystery of the entire story focuses on how they will find the missing golden Buddha. Through technology in near-future Cambodia, the new friends use memory recording technology to find Leng Heng’s previous reincarnations. Every dream leads to a new clue and destination, which leads them closer and closer to their desired item. But these discoveries are much closer to their home than they think, and it leads Srey Leak and Leng Heng to question their journey and his memories, even the teaching of life itself.

A boy sits atop an old railcar with the city in the distance

Karmalink’s ideas and narrative structure are not hard for viewers to understand. The idea is straightforward and it brings in new concepts of consciousness from the perspective of Wachtel’s personal life and the teachings he learned in Buddhism. In the press statement, Wachtel said he was a witness to Cambodia’s change in society and culture, mainly development. The process of many families being displaced from their neighbourhoods for development projects changed the trajectory of family structures. He uses this discovery in the narrative structure and lends technological advancements and progress. This idea is Leng Heng’s central part of his story. His family doesn’t take part in augmented reality, a new culture in the capital city of Cambodia, and probably due to the fact that his family lives in poverty and they won’t be able to afford the technology. He is alienated from the technological progression of the community, just like Srey Leak, who wouldn’t be able to afford it.

Having access to this technology itself seems like a privilege, and people like Leng Heng and Srey Leak who don’t have the kind of luxury to afford them wouldn’t be able to experience it. At one point, Srey Leak suggests recording Leng Heng’s memories to try and decipher his memories, so they visit Kosal, who has succumbed to the new culture. He injected a nanobot into their body that allows their brain to turn into computers. In some sense, it strips away reality and Leng Heng slowly and gradually becomes lost inside the many memories of his past lives. This path leads them to get a clear picture of where the golden statue might be hidden, and the story changes into something new.

While the majority of the story focuses on memory, it also shows the colonial history of Cambodia, and how it affected and still affects the Global South. Leng Heng lived his precious lives among the French and U.S. occupation. One of the memories shows how the golden statue was once in the hands of the French and then passed down to Leng Heng’s previous life, where it was passed down to someone else again. The preservation, exchange and loss of culture and artefacts from colonial powers might be similar to some audiences, especially for people whose culture was lost through Western colonisation.
Karmalink is a fascinating and heartbreaking story of family and cultural displacement due to a country’s development. At the core of this story is about the importance of friendship and togetherness between Leng Heng and Srey Leak. What’s great about this story is that no one needs to know about the teachings of Buddhism to understand the narrative ideas presented in the film. The gap between the poor and rich and the dangers of artificial technology are seeped into the cultural and universal themes of Karmalink. The performances of the late Prak and Chhith are marvellous. It’s an emotional journey of spirituality and poverty that every viewer needs to diverge and understand unique stories that blend genres.