It’s a film over seven years in the making charting an incredible journey of one man’s goal to preserve an ancient Cambodian fighting system for the next generation.
“Surviving Bokator” is not just a film about preserving a system but of the importance of Bokator’s cultural and historical significance.
The film was screened at the Stratford East Picturehouse in London on Saturday 10th September as part of the 7th Fighting Spirit Film Festival. In attendance, as well as ourselves, and festival delegates was His Excellency Mr Pharidh Kan, Ambassador for Cambodia.
At the film’s core lies Master San Kim Sean (‘Sea An’), a legend considered to be the father of modern Bokator. Master Sean is on a mission to discover the full history of Bokator and pass it on to the next generation of practitioners and teachers.
Sharing this difficult journey with Master Sean is former monk and Bokator protege Darith Ung. For this heir apparent, Bokator is his life, living in the dojo and dedicating much of his life to the cause.
Tharoth Sam, known affectionately as ‘Little Frog’ looks to break the glass ceiling and become Cambodia’s first female Bokator instructor.
Student Buntha Leng is considered a natural leader, able to balance his commitment to Bokator with a full-time job whilst helping with the family business.
The biggest advocate for Master Sean’s mission is Vath Chamroeun, former Olympic wrestler and Secretary General for the National Olympic Committee of Cambodia. Chamroeun was one of many athletes who competed in the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games for the first time since the Khmer Rouge occupation.
Students Eng Sou Mala and Sokkoung Chea are both very business-minded and so help Master Sean with his club’s administration.
Genocide survivor San Kim Sean leads a team of youths on a mission to revive Cambodia’s ancient martial art and win an international competition.
Bokator was nearly eradicated by the Khmer Rouge 40 years ago and was feared extinct. Filmed over 5 years, this powerful award-winning film is a unique look into a post-war people’s efforts to reclaim traditional identity and find their place in the modern world.
Coming into this film it was hard to know what to expect, even from the trailer. Was this going to be an account of Bokator’s history or a deep insight into the 10,000 or so techniques that make up this seldom heard of fighting art?
The revelation is that it is neither, but in fact a true underdog story in the tradition of classic martial arts and sport storytelling cinema.
It certainly has all the tropes: there is triumph over adversity, conflict, loss, survival, and ultimately, hope for a happy ending. By presenting the journey of Master Sean and his students, director
Mark Bochsler leads the audience into a joyous-yet-difficult mission to achieve the almost impossible.
The Joy of Bokator
The film captures the excitement of the shared journey of the master and his students. Struggles to meet life’s commitments are very real, yet what comes across so vividly is the passion and the reward from training.
The nervous excitement jumps off the screen as the students prepare to perform at the Korean Chungju Martial Arts Festival. So captivating is their story one can’t help but be so emotionally invested in this journey that you find yourself rooting for them and wincing in sympathy at some slippage on stage and fumbling of weapons.
Like all underdog stories there is a dark side fraught with challenges and conflict. Boschler pulls no punches in showing just how ravaged Cambodia remains after the Khmer Rouge occupation and how it is still recovering from the devastation.
Stories of the horrors inflicted on anyone viewed as a threat, including Bokator masters, serve as a terrifying history lesson and reminder that the country is still in recovery. The abject poverty is prevalent throughout the film; all the students, with the exception of Master Sean’s protege Darith Ung (who lives in the club), juggle studies and full time jobs with training commitments.
The biggest sign of the difference however is Master Sean’s efforts to secure funding from foreign donors. It’s also a struggle that soon takes its toll as relationships start to fracture. It’s both a shock and refreshing for Boschler and his crew to have been allowed to include the conflict.
Bokator Culture and History
Amongst all this drama is what lies at the film’s core – Bokator.
By avoiding the trap of getting bogged down into the art’s technical detail Boschler is able to show Bokator in the context of its cultural importance.
There are plenty of scenes featuring Master Sean’s students practising at the Angkor Wat Temples. The sublime feel of these moments are aesthetically stoic but also strengthens the students’ link to their culture and history.
Watching both Master Sean and the students practise, at first glance it bears similarities to Muay Thai. It certainly raises an eyebrow or two when we see flowing movements, and strikes mixed with intricate takedowns and ground work. This is certainly not Muay Thai.
It’s almost as if it’s a complete fighting system or ‘mixed martial art’, it was, after all designed for warfare. HIstory buffs will surely salivate during Master Sean’s tour of some of the Angkor Wat temples with stone carvings depicting techniques we saw demonstrated earlier in the film.
It emphasizes the interconnection of Bokator, with Cambodia’s culture, and history. Whatever similarities it may share, there’s no doubt Bokator is unique and with so few films showcasing it to this extent, for martial arts enthusiasts these scenes alone are worth the viewing. Yet it means nothing without Master Sean’s story to preserve this vital heritage for the next generation.
“Surviving Bokator” is an intense and moving story that thrusts you right into the emotional core of the film. Master Sean’s drive and passion depicted is such that you become emotionally involved as opposed to a voyeur comfortably watching things unfold.
By dispensing with any attempts to delve into too much detail of the system, director Mark Bochsler focuses on the cultural value of Bokator and what it means to those who study it, teach it and fight tooth and nail to preserve it.
In cinematic terms it plays out very much as an underdog story since there are so many generational mountains to climb, and self interests and egos to overcome.
Though the story of Bokator’s journey to full recognition is ongoing, the film has a happy ending of sorts. It leaves you hopeful that a fighting system steeped in Cambodia’s history and culture, believed lost in the ravages of war, can rise in phoenix fashion from those ashes and take its place as a fully recognized martial art.
- “Not only China has, not only Japan has, but we have our own. And our young generation don’t know what it is. So I have to do something to survive our culture.” – Grandmaster San Kim Sean
- “We have the same idea to improve, to promote Bokator but just in a different way.” – Buntha Leng
- “It’s because of him that we pick it up again, to keep it alive again.” – Tharoth Sam
- The film’s title is taken from Master Sean. It is the name given to his mission “Surviving Bokator” translated as “Fighting to Save Bokator”.
- It is pronounced ‘Bo Ka Tau’.
- Bokator is thought to be over 1700 years old. Carvings on the walls of the Angkor Wat temples are of very high quality, representing Hindu gods as well as scenes from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana revealing many Bokator techniques which predate systems such as Hapkido and Jiu Jitsu.
- Like Muay Thai, Bokator was developed specifically for warfare.
- Weapons used include sticks, staffs, swords and bamboo arm guards.
- Bokator is a complete fighting system that includes multiple striking techniques as well as locks, submissions, and even ground based techniques.
- The Chungju martial arts festival featured in the film is an annual Korean event. It showcases martial arts from all over the world as well as the country’s own systems of Taekkyeon, Taekwondo, and Hapkido.
- Tharoth Sam helped spread Bokator by competing in MMA matches, and starring alongside Jean Paul-Ly in the film “Jailbreak”.
- She competed in a total of 6 matches before retiring. She fought in Full Metal Dojo, ONE Championship, and Bayon Khmer MMA. She won 4 matches by submission and lost 2 – only 1 was by knockout, the other by decision.