Jailbreak is a Gorgeously Shot Ode to Cambodia’s Martial Art


Jimmy Henderson (director), Godefroy Ryckewaert (cinematographer), Amit Dubey, Jimmy Henderson (editors)
Jean-Paul Ly, Dara Our, Tharoth Sam, Céline Tran, Savin Phillip, Dara Phang (cast)
September 23, 2017 (Fantastic Fest), October 6, 2017 (London Film Festival)

Jailbreak is an ambitious, kinetic, and wildly enjoyable action film hailing from Cambodia, a country whose film industry is slowly making a comeback after it was all but decimated under the Khmer Rouge rule in the 1970s. Cambodia’s Khmer Times touts Jailbreak as Cambodia’s first blockbuster and first Khmer action film, and notes that it’s the first Cambodian film to make it into the international market. Directed by Cambodia-based Italian Jimmy Henderson, Jailbreak is a bold and reaffirming statement by Cambodians: they’re here; their culture exists; and their raw talent and technical expertise is comparable to, if not better than, most Hollywood productions.

Jailbreak tells the story of four cops who have to survive in a prison when a riot breaks out. The film opens with Playboy, the only male member of the all-female gang the Butterflies, being caught by police. Playboy bargains to reveal the identity of the Butterfly leader, as well as spill gang secrets, in exchange for his own freedom. Officers Dara, Socheat, Tharoth, and Cambodian-French Inspector Ly are assigned to escort Playboy to Prei Klaa prison, where he’ll be kept safe until the trial. But leader Madame Butterfly gets word Playboy is going to snitch and puts a bounty out on him. With Prei Klaa housing numerous gangs, it’s no surprise all hell breaks loose as soon as the officers arrive at Prei Klaa with Playboy.

Jailbreak’s plot is simple and straightforward in order to act as a vehicle for showcasing bokator, the Cambodian martial art. It’s an art form that nearly disappeared entirely during the the Cambodian genocide from 1975 to 1979, when all martial arts and artistic and intellectual pursuits were banned and their practitioners executed. Grandmaster San Kim Sean is credited with bringing bokator back into the public consciousness in the early 2000s, opening schools across Cambodia. Jailbreak features a handful of San Kim Sean’s own students, including Dara Our and Tharoth Sam, who is one of only two women learning from San Kim Sean.

And it’s very clear that all of the protagonists are well-versed in the art form. The fight scenes are well-lit, up close, and heart-poundingly visceral. In Hollywood action films, what you often see is clever camera angles, sparse lighting, and quick cut-aways that all work to conceal the fact that the actor isn’t a trained martial artist, and that the kicks aren’t actually landing but carefully staged. An excellent example of this is Netflix Marvel’s Iron Fist, where one single 35 second fight scene required 56 editing cuts.  

Cinematographer Godefroy Ryckewaert doesn’t need to be clever in that way. To put it simply, Jailbreak does everything a martial arts production should do, using the exact style of filming that Jackie Chan once said was necessary to making great martial arts films. He makes excellent use of lighting and space in Jailbreak; nearly every action scene is brightly lit, and the camera moves in a way that makes the audience very aware of how claustrophobic being trapped in the prison is, and how skilled each fighter is for maximizing that space.

In one notable scene, the protagonists are trapped in a room by at least twenty men. What ensues is a no-holds barred fight where the camera swings in a continuous arc around the protagonists, with a cutaway only happening when a new attacker enters the room. Ryckewaert makes liberal use of the continuous shot, pivoting between each protagonist as they each take on five men at a time. The camera then abruptly switches to a shaky cam, where you see every strike up close; it lends a frenetic and visceral feel to the scene, and makes it very clear that nobody is swapping out for stunt doubles. The fight scenes are so realistic, so sparse in their edits that either the choreographers and Ryckewaert are incredibly skilled or many of these men are actually taking an elbow straight to the face.

The film itself is entirely confined to the labyrinthine prison, and the writers do an interesting enough job of introducing new obstacles. Pressure mounts as the group of four gets split up, and around every corner there’s the fear of another mob or a new cell getting suddenly unlocked. Maximum security characters like the Cannibal and Caribbean stuntsman Laurent Plancel’s Suicide being released adds variety on top of the endless hordes of prison goons.  

As a plot, surviving a riot doesn’t have quite enough steam to keep a full-length film going, and the film does sag a bit in the end. My bigger issue with the film though was how little it ended up using the women. For a story that revolves around an all-female gang pulling the strings, the women are pushed to the margins, only seen briefly as they’re strutting around in leather pants — with the camera level with their butts, of course. Leader Madame Butterfly makes an appearance, but for someone who orchestrated the entire riot, her screentime is all too brief.

It also feels as if the film doesn’t use Tharoth Sam to her full potential. In a society where it’s uncommon for women to take up martial arts, Tharoth is the first female fighter trained in bokator to make it into the MMA League. “It was the gender barrier here in Cambodia that I was determined to break. I want to show the world and my country what Khmer women are capable of, and how powerful they can be,” Tharoth told the Phnom Penh Post in 2015. In the film, Tharoth is saddled with a romance, one that feels rushed and ridiculous in context. And despite being one of the most skilled fighters in the country, her character is often relegated to being a damsel, needing to be rescued by Inspector Ly. In this way the film felt too much like a Hollywood production, and I wish on top of bone-breaking we could’ve also seen more gender barrier-breaking here.

But overall Jailbreak is a gorgeous ode to bokator and a standout example of the kinds of films that South East Asia has to offer. This 100 minute film offers up more enjoyable, well-filmed, and bone-crunching action than say, the entirety of Marvel’s Iron Fist and Defenders series. If this is the level of production that we’re looking to see out of Cambodia, I absolutely can’t wait for the kinds of films its industry churns out next.

Gretchen Smail

Gretchen Smail

Gretchen lives and works in SF as a freelancer. If not at work, is probably off eating ramen, petting dogs, or attempting yoga. Tweets too much at @ubeempress.