Showing in the Orizzonti sidebar at the 70th Venice Film Festival, Ruin (2013) is by turns a gritty and dazzling lovers-on-the-run tale set in modern day Cambodia. Directed by Michael Cody and Amiel Courtin-Wilson, the film tells the story of two of society’s worst-off down-and-outs. Sang Malen plays Sovanna, a young prostitute who is beaten and mistreated by her pimp when she feigns illness to escape work. She manages to escape, but Phnom Penh – and Cambodia, for that mater – is no place for a young girl on her own. Fortunately she meets Phirun (Rous Mony), an aggressive young local factory worker.
A vague spark of affection is ignited and Phirun promises to shelter the girl, but following a murder they are forced to flee the city and look to survive on the road. The obvious model here is Terrence Malick’s 1973 classic Badlands, with moments of down-to-earth social realism in the first half giving way to images of occasionally breathtaking beauty as the two retreat further up the river and into the jungle. The score, courtesy of Steve Benwell, creates a suitably tense soundscape and super-slow motion shots of fire and water boldly complement the filmmakers’ ambition that the lovers be regarded as something elemental and powerful. After all, Sovanna and Phirun have been utterly brutalised by the world around them.
Sovanna in particular feels constantly endangered in an environment where sexual predation seems to be the norm. A violent encounter with a ‘client’ is shown at length, though Ruin never wallows in the degradation meted out to her, and she is never the passive victim – striking out on several occasions. The relationship between Sovanna and Phirun is natural and easy, and it’s no great surprise to discover that much of the Cody and Courtin-Wilson’s intimate drama was improvised. The duo enjoy a moment of oasis-like calm in a hotel room paid for with money they’ve stolen, unused to the comforts and luxuries of clean sheets, television and toothpaste.
And yet, our bruised and battered pair are not straightforwardly heroic. The exterior world is against them, but they too are capable of reprehensible cruelty. Morally complex, Cody and Courtin-Wilson have made a remarkably ambitious and assured film (although this is Cody’s debut feature, Courtin-Wilson also directed 2011’s Hail) which feels like a refreshing new take on a now-familiar tale. Ruin ultimately manages to find a successful way out from the tired clichés of the premise, delivering an off-the-beaten-track journey of commendable artistic and poetic vision.
The 70th Venice Film Festival takes place from 28 August to 7 September, 2013. For more of our Venice 2013 coverage, simply follow this link.