When a teenage boy starts having dreams about his past lives, he discovers that he may have the key to unearthing a long-lost treasure. In writer/director Jake Wachtel’s astonishing new film set in a near-future Cambodia, technology has encroached on traditional society so completely that residents are comfortable with personal tech enhancements and constant drone traffic buzzing around overhead. While the boy seems to be leading a normal lower-class life, he exists in a world that has been fundamentally changed by technology, for better and worse.
Although the boy isn’t enhanced, he decides to use nano-transmitters to record his dreams so he can share them with his friends in the hopes of tracking down the treasure, a palm-sized golden Buddha statue passed between the boy’s prior incarnations. The group of tech-saturated teenage treasure hunters brings to mind The Goonies crossed with Ghost in the Shell, but Watchel’s story is wholly unique and imaginative.
Meanwhile, an aging neuroscientist is conducting digital experiments on himself, searching for enlightenment in the digital ether instead of the real world. He has a connection to the boy that is directly related to the treasure dreams, but the full extent of their connection is withheld until the final act.
Wachtel does a superb job with his limited budget, utilizing the rarely seen Cambodian settings layered with tech CGI to ratchet up the otherness of his brave new world. In that respect, it bears a resemblance to what Saul Williams did with Neptune Frost in Africa. Like Williams, Wachtel is an American working with a native cast and crew, but Wachtel has deep ties to Cambodia after living there for an extended time and conducting filmmaking and acting classes that first introduced him to his young cast members.
The film moves very well, both in pacing and camerawork. Watchel expertly teases the treasure and reincarnation details as well as the doctor’s true motivations, giving us just enough info to keep us hooked until the next reveal. Kinetic camera movement increases our engagement, from up-close handheld shots to stunning tracking shots such as a battle scene in a palm field. A skittering, glitchy electronic soundtrack adds to the film’s digital allure, and the amateur native actors give the film an elevated sense of authenticity.
Tragically, the young star of the film passed away after its completion, a shocking development revealed by the film’s dedication to his memory in the end credits. In a film that deals so directly with reincarnation and digital lives, there’s some solace to be found in the thought that he lives on through this masterful work.