Dressed in a peach bardot dress and gold, platformed heels, Lida Duch looks every bit a film star as she steps out of her blacked-out Lexus and struts toward us. Since her 2015 breakthrough role in the Khmer action movie Sbaek Kong, not to mention winning the best actress gong at the 2017 Cambodian International Film Festival, the 26-year-old Phnom Penh native has been carving out a niche playing female roles that defy the country’s prevailing definition of femininity. But while her approach has won her hordes of fans, it’s also somewhat limited her opportunities.
Growing up, Duch spent a lot of time watching TV – America’s Next Top Model on Channel V, to be precise. After developing an admiration for the tenacity of the show’s host, Tyra Banks, she began to imagine a similar future for herself. And so, when the Cambodian beauty pageant Spy Super Model was launched, Duch jumped at the chance to get involved.
“I really enjoyed watching [America’s Next Top Model] so, when I found out about Spy Super Model, I did some photoshoots and applied. I was one of 20 contestants to be selected,” she says. “I was the shortest, though, so people involved in the show made fun of me.”
Duch didn’t win the competition, but the show gave her exposure – and it didn’t take long for TV and music video offers to start rolling in.
Not everyone was happy about her newfound success, though.
“My mum didn’t support me. She never wanted me to pursue a career in film because of all the rumours and gossip about how superstars got mistreated by people within the industry and had to sleep with people to get anywhere in their careers. She called the industry a ‘tiger zone’,” she says. “My mother was so concerned. She didn’t want me to go far from home. She just wanted me to get a normal job.
“Those who loved me told me they didn’t want me to be in this industry… But I just wanted to do my best and to show everyone that I loved the work.”
After impressing in popular TV dramas and Sbaek Kong, Duch landed a leading role in the Italian director Jimmy Henderson’s The Forest Whispers, a fantasy-horror film about a Cambodian village that falls victim to a series of harrowing events seemingly brought on by the arrival of a mystical woman played by Duch.
In allowing her to depart from playing stereotypical swooning girls, the role was significant for Duch, and it paved the way for her cameo appearance as a gang member in Henderson’s acclaimed no-holds-barred action flick Jailbreak. Despite the limited screen time the role offered, Duch says that playing the tenacious criminal has been a personal highlight.
“Although my role was quite small, it has been my favourite so far. I liked my character because she was fierce,” she says. “But it’s very hard to find these roles in Cambodia. Nobody is really challenging [the status quo]. Most actresses just stick to romantic or funny roles.”
Duch’s complaints are commonplace. As in many parts of the world, the film industry here is dominated by men, who all too often have a tendency to write weak and docile female characters.
The negative societal impact of a male-dominated film industry, however, is all the more keenly felt in Cambodia, where, up until 2007, schoolgirls were taught a moral code of conduct called Chbab Srey that described the ideal woman as being gentle, shy and subservient to her husband. Despite being phased out of the school curriculum, the text still holds sway in Cambodian culture. “Your skirt must not rustle while you walk,” and “you can’t touch your husband’s head without first bowing in respect,” read two excerpts.
Despite the explicit gendered expectations that plague her profession, Duch says she’s optimistic about the future of Cambodia’s resurgent film industry.
“It feels like a movement is developing. Parents are more open-minded about their children pursuing careers in the film industry, and people are getting more exposure,” she says between sips of passion fruit soda. “But we have very limited resources and need to work on a lot of things.” What’s more, many Cambodian directors, producers and TV executives suffer from a myopic focus on profit and unrealistic expectations, adds Duch.
“They don’t really invest much money in the film. They give a small budget, and then they say: ‘Oh, we want this and this and this.’ But they don’t understand how it works,” she says. “They complain that the actors aren’t acting well, but they don’t understand that you need to invest a lot if you want to be successful.”
An incessant buzzing interrupts Duch mid-flow and she looks down to see her Louis Vuitton-patterned iPhone threatening to fall of the table. Poan Phoung Bopha, Cambodia’s foremost female director, is calling – most likely to discuss some voice dubbing work that Duch is scheduled to do in a few hours’ time. Before she hurries off, we squeeze in one final question. Does she dream of acting in a Hollywood movie one day?
“Of course. I always want to work abroad to get more experience. You always pick up new techniques when you work with international film crews, and you need to get your name out there. But I don’t plan to live abroad,” she says. “I don’t want to live anywhere other than Cambodia. I love my country.”