Karmalink is an earnest near-future sci-fi built around the thin line between memory and fantasy, with a plot centering on friendship, mystery and technological advancement. Set in Cambodia, Jake Wachtel’s directorial debut revolves around children living at the underdeveloped edge of a technologically advanced capital city. “Young detective” Srey Leak (Srey Leak Chhith) tries to untangle the connection between Leng Heng (Leng Heng Prak), her friend living in the Tralok Bek outskirts of Phnom Penh who sees his past lives in his dreams, and a neuroscientist (Sahajak Boonthanakit) trying to attain enlightenment through technology. The film never needlessly complicates things, moving quickly to establish its stakes, yet still provides moments of surprise.
Unsurprisingly, Karmalink is about karma and reincarnation: It opens with a man hooking himself up to a machine, praying, “I am born of my karma, heir to my karma.” The screen fades to show a thief (Ros Mony) stealing a golden Buddha statuette and burying it in a field after being confronted by a monk (Chear Sreng). Leng Heng awakens from this dream, eventually seeking the treasure he believes he stole, hid and discovered over multiple past lives. Meanwhile, his mother (Sveng Socheata) is leading protests—developers of a high-speed rail to China threaten to buy and raze the community. His grandmother (Savern Oum) is part of a memory study being conducted by Dr. Sophia (Cindy Sirinya Bishop). Elsewhere in their community, the resourceful Srey Leak survives with insufficient help from her older brother Kosal (So Sokvan), scavenging and bartering between junk dealers and selling cigarettes at night clubs. Leng Heng and his friends—Ty (Li Ty), Mi (Tommy Henderson) and Do (Rando Henderson)—hire Srey Leak to help them find the treasure.
This film about friendship and love sees poverty create the goal and poverty create the obstacles. Srey Leak Chhith and the late Leng Heng Prak ground the youthful adventure in their relationship as their trust in and dependence on one another carries the story from the precarious circumstances of their lives and the lofty dreams produced from their drive to escape them. The mystery at the heart of their adventure—Where can we find that golden Buddha?—and the dream-recording AUGR technology they encounter allows the story to casually engage with memory and reincarnation. This leads to pursuits of insight, self-discovery and, eventually, enlightenment through technology, all of which reveal moral quandaries about life and consciousness.
But that philosophical depth isn’t so much a concern of the children as something that appears late into their journey. More surprisingly, the economic pressure doesn’t create as much familial tension as one might expect. In some ways, the film feels like a vivid dream, as an emotional arc bound in near-dire economic circumstances is met by community resilience that doesn’t feel inevitable but isn’t built in struggle. On the other hand, during a holiday ceremony, the words of a religious leader (about how everything will turn out alright) feel intentionally shallow as the family nears eviction and the community is apparently on its heels.
At the same time, the more complicated implications of using nanobot injections to allow people to turn their brains into computers and the world into a smartphone are mostly unexplored, aside from Leng Heng gradually shifting into a walking daze as he seeks the treasure of his remembered past lives. Drawing on Wachtel’s own study of Theravada Buddhism, he and Christopher Larsen’s script incorporates plenty of ideological complexity that could overwhelm the emotional core if less well-managed. But Karmalink never feels heavy or slow, even as its sense of adventure relies on hope and faith rather than chases or explosions.
This partially works because the aesthetic immerses us. Robert Leitzell’s cinematography, Danny Bokator’s art department, Olga Miasnikova’s production design, Evren Catlin and Miasnikova’s costumes, Alana Pryor Ackerman’s set decoration—it all establishes the impoverished outskirts of a metropolis. While physical detritus and garbage figure into parts of the world, it’s never drab and there’s no overuse of the divisive yellow filter; colors highlight and illuminate the world without ever feeling false. The camerawork makes the story easy to follow and the scene-setting is elegant, especially when combined with the editing by Harrison Atkins and Stephanie Kaznocha to transition between the past lives. The first depiction of the Farmer that finds the Thief’s buried treasure is especially memorable: I want this beautiful landscape snapshot of rural life on a poster. The FX team, led by Blaise Hossain, creates clean, immersive, plausible real-world applications of augmented reality laid atop buildings in advertisements and deployed as in-brain cameras. The places where they interact with dreams and visions are especially impressive. Simultaneously, Vincent Villa’s sound design and Ariel Marx’s score—especially the use of chimes and percussion—make the film feel like it exists between documentary and sci-fi.
Being about memory, Karmalink is also a film inherently about history. The French occupation and U.S. bombing of Cambodia both figure into Leng Heng’s past lives as reminders of how culturally important treasures change hands, and how the lives of people in the Global South are affected by the whims of colonial powers. This is reinforced by subtle touches about how this world differs from that familiar to most American audiences. While Cambodia is not in a declared war, it is implied that Leng Heng’s father is contracted as a low-level soldier in foreign conflict; when Srey Leak first does business with Leng Heng and his friends, she pays for an old hard drive disc with American dollars, which Ty says nobody wants. I can’t speculate as to how this sat with Cambodian viewers, but Americans might find that to be a notable touch—implying a future loss of prestige or reflecting a current one.
I’m excited about Wachtel’s next picture, and even more excited to see what his filmmaking students in Cambodia eventually come up with. Karmalink is a very good story about child detectives trying to make do in an imbalanced and unfair world. Like Inception, it nods at the human desire to escape into our dreams, and like much of sci-fi, it grapples with human reliance on technology. Some of the most interesting implications go unexplored, but it’s beautiful to look at and delights where it treads.
Director: Jake Wachtel
Writer: Jake Wachtel, Christopher Larsen
Starring: Srey Leak Chhith, Leng Heng Prak, Sahajak Boonthanakit, Cindy Sirinya Bishop, Rous Mony, Sveng Socheata
Release Date: July 15, 2022
Kevin Fox, Jr. is a freelance writer with an MA in history, who loves videogames, film, TV, and sports, and dreams of liberation. He can be found on Twitter @kevinfoxjr.