A Cinematic Love Song: Cambodian-American Filmmakers with NoVa Roots Premiere ‘In the Life of Music’

Loudoun-based producer Neardey Trinh and Los Angeles-based filmmaker Caylee So are more than cousins—they’re creative collaborators. Their first feature film “In the Life of Music” has been racking up awards at festivals in the U.S. and abroad and makes its Northern Virginia debut next month.

The moving and visually gorgeous film explores the experience of Generation X Cambodian-Americans who emigrated to the U.S. as young children and pays tribute to members of the previous generation who fled the Khmer Rouge regime.

“This movie is a love song to my parents’ generation,” said So, who co-wrote and co-directed the film and co-produced it with Trinh.

The film tells the story of Hope, a young Cambodian-American woman, who returns to her family’s homeland in 2005. Told in three interlinked storylines, the film also follows Hope’s parents’ love story in the late ’60s and the hardships and killings in Cambodia under communist rule in the 1970s. Running through all three storylines is the family’s relationship to the famous 1960s pop song “Champa Battambang.”

“Music and art were a huge part of the culture before the war,” Trinh said. “We took the song and we wove it through in different renditions. … The power it had to connect those characters was what we were trying to get people to feel.”

For Trinh, a South Riding IT professional and mother of four, film production is an exciting new path. She helped raised funds for So’s thesis film in graduate school, the 2012 short film “Paulina.” When So pitched her concept for “In the Life of Music” in 2015, Trinh was immediately on board, raising tens of thousands of dollars to produce the film. She also helped with script editing and casting, as well as budgeting and fundraising. Moving into film production has been a big learning curve and an energizing experience for the Navy veteran who still works in the technology sector.

“I learned everything,” Trinh said. “We developed this from concept to close.”

Up-and-coming actor Ellen Wong plays Hope, a young Cambodian American woman who returns to her family’s homeland in the mid-2000s.

The movie was filmed in Cambodia and co-directed by So and noted Cambodian director Visal Sok. One of the big coups for the producers was casting up-and-coming, Canadian-born actor Ellen Wong in the role of Hope. Wong, who is of Chinese-Cambodian heritage, is best known for her recurring role as wrestler Jenny Chey on the Netflix series GLOW.

So said the film isn’t autobiographical per se, but there are certainly elements of her own experience in Hope.

Trinh, 40, was born in Cambodia in 1978 and came to Northern Virginia at age 2. So, 37, was born in a refugee camp in Thailand and also came to the U.S. as a young child. Both women attended public schools in Fairfax County, graduated from George Mason University and served in the U.S. military. So went on to study film in Los Angeles.

“To me, that character is representative of the entire 1.5 generation or the second generation trying to rediscover their roots and the idea that a lot of our parents never returned to their home country even though they talked about it,” So said. “Maybe the character was born out of the idea that my parents never returned to Cambodia because of the PTSD that they had from the war.”

Like many second-generation immigrants, Hope understands Cambodian when she returns to visit family but has trouble speaking, and Trinh says that experience rings very true.

“She can understand but can’t speak it really well which is kind of how I am. In the film, when she’s doing that, it’s actually pretty natural,” Trinh said. “It’s the experience that Caylee wrote in that a lot of us as Cambodian-Americans experience going back to Cambodia.”

The real-life song that helped inspire the film is another nod to So and Trinh’s parents’ generation. “Champa Battambang” was a 1965 hit for singer Sinn Sisamouth, known as the king of Cambodian music. The real-life Sinn disappeared during the Khmer Rouge regime, and the film’s 1970s segment focuses on a fictionalized musician who is killed by the regime for rejecting demands to join propaganda efforts.

“In the Life of Music” was filmed in Cambodia on a shoestring budget and won awards at numerous festivals last year.

“Almost every single adult from that generation remembers it and it’s a very nostalgic song. I remember listening to it when I was growing up—one of the few songs that I retained in my memory,” So said. “I knew it would tap into something very special for a lot of people.”

The film is certainly tapping into accolades from viewers and judges at festivals: it won an audience award for Best International Narrative Feature and a special jury prize for best director at the 2018 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival and was named Best Narrative Feature at the Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival last November.

The movie’s DC-area premiere Feb. 21 will be a homecoming of sorts for So, who still has close ties to the Northern Virginia community and whose father will be on hand for the screening. Trinh and So are working on getting U.S. distribution for the film, which is slated to be released in Cambodia in March. Meanwhile, the two partners have several new scripts in development, including a romantic comedy.

“We’re finding new films, new stories to tell and we’ll see where it goes,” So said.

“In the Life of Music” makes its DC area premiere Thursday, Feb. 21 at 6 p.m. at Bow Tie Cinemas at Reston Town Center. A Q&A with filmmakers follows the screening. Tickets are $20 and availability is limited. Advance purchase is recommended. For more information, go to inthelifeofmusic.com. For tickets, go to tickettailor.com/events/inthelifeofmusic.

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