From the shots of steam rising from street food stalls, the golden glint of a Buddhist stupa and half-crumbled stone ruins, you could be forgiven, at first blush, for thinking director Lee Phongsavanh’s latest film is a tourism promotion for Laos. But then come the young men flipping, diving, somersaulting and bouncing off their country’s sacred spaces and gritty streets — freerunning.
Like parkour, freerunning is a kind of wild acrobatic feat meant to be performed with nonchalance. And Motion of Life, one of about 10 films from the 25-year-old Phongsavanh, documents a few men’s love affair with the form. At home, he has won five awards — he was even banned from reentering the local film festival and made a judge because he won it twice in a row. And this year he traveled to the Berlinale International Film Festival in Germany to screen the 18-minute film and get a taste of just how far the art can take him.
Gabriel Kuperman, an American who runs an annual film festival in Laos’ popular tourist destination of Luang Prabang, sees a young person on the verge of a breakthrough — if he will commit. “Everyone’s watching him, but he doesn’t do film full-time,” Kuperman says. “I’m always telling him to do more film because he’s got the talent and the drive.”
With just seven million people and only one real movie theater in the whole country, Laos is not exactly a filmmaking hotbed. People watch Thai soap operas on their home television sets rather than hit the cinema. The one-party Communist government has a heavy censorship hand. But, like many underdogs in the art world these days, the country has a potential equalizing force: YouTube. That’s how Phongsavanh got his start. Now a wave of artists is trying to take the country to the big time.
Anysay Keola, 33, studied film in Thailand, where there is a large industry, returning home to help launch Lao New Wave. The director is one of just a handful of film full-timers in the country, but there is opportunity in being, as Keola puts it, “a trailblazer.” Take Kenya, which has seen its industry take off in a little more than a decade. Growing Lao youth interest already has sparked construction on more movie theaters.
Film, Phongsavanh tells OZY over soup and spring rolls at a popular Vientiane restaurant, is for now one of many passions. He owns a growing custom T-shirt business, organizes breakdancing contests and DJs. Bespectacled with shaggy black hair, Phongsavanh speaks near-fluent English learned from repeat movie viewings, dotted with slang. (Does he have a girlfriend? “It’s complicated.”) He adores hip-hop culture — an early film shows a breakdancing practice session set to Wu-Tang Clan’s “C.R.E.A.M.” — and it was dancing that brought him into film. More than a decade ago, Phongsavanh saw a phone commercial in which a man was putting on a captivating acrobatic show, and he would watch TV all day waiting for the ad to come on again to learn “b-boy” moves. For his first film, at age 20, he took a 10-hour bus ride from the capital to Luang Prabang in search of an underground b-boy scene.
After his early success, he is hesitant to join a Lao New Wave project for what would be his first feature-length film. “They want to do mainstream stuff, be popular,” Phongsavanh says. “Movies, that is my life. It’s not business. I don’t want to make movies for sale. I make them for myself. I don’t know how to make them for sale.” Keola, the Lao New Wave cofounder, describes Lee as a visionary without technical know-how. “When you’re going to do the feature film, you’re going to need to do a proper system to help you. Otherwise, you’re going to be a mess,” Keola says.
So far, Phongsavanh has shown remarkable skill on his own. Like his debut with the b-boys, the freerunners film that took him to Berlin — the biggest publicly attended film festival in the world — has an underground flavor, focusing on a sport growing in popularity in part because it requires no more equipment than a sturdy pair of shoes. The final product includes aerial views from a drone with interviews as Boy, T-Bom, Oleq and Koy describe their daily lives, and it follows them to Bangkok for an international competition. Think Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon meets Hoop Dreams.
These days, T-shirts take up more time than film. He showed off his wares on a recent afternoon at his store in a bustling downtown neighborhood. They often incorporate Western imagery and slogans — “Keep Calm and Live in Laos” declares one; another features Mike Tyson. A couple of blocks away is Lee’s small apartment, where posters of Bruce Lee, Steve Jobs and The Avengers share space with Lee’s dance projects and awards. Also there? His DVD rack, but those flicks aren’t center stage. They’re tucked away in the back of the room, almost forgettably, to leave space for the breakdancing mat.
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