Small but deadly, MMA flyweight fighter Tharoth Sam – aka Kalorntorn, or ‘Little Frog’ – was in Canada for the first time to help promote Surviving Bokator, a documentary screening at the Hamilton Film Festival.
The word Bokator translates as “to pound a lion” and the ancient martial art is thought to have its origins in the battlefields of the Khmer Empire about 1,700 years ago. The documentary by director Mark Bochsler and producer Sandra Leuba spans five years as Bokator Grandmaster San Kim Sean struggles to re-establish the martial art in Cambodia. Tharoth emerges as one of the stars of the film – and one of only two female students at the Bokator Academy.
Darith Ung, a former Buddhist monk, is also featured in the film. He becomes the star pupil and then instructor at the Bokator Academy. Other devotees and supporters emerge, including Eng Sou Mala, the second of the two female Bokator students at the Academy, and Vath Chamroeun, who represented Cambodia as a wrestler at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta – the first to do so from his country since the Khmer Rouge years. Today, he’s the Secretary General of National Olympic Committee of Cambodia and Under Secretary of State, and a staunch supporter of Bokator.
Nearly four decades after the end of what is now known as the Killing Fields genocide, Cambodia is still a nation that is struggling to redefine itself on the international scene. It’s the legacy of the Khmer Rouge regime that held sway from 1975 to 1979, four years of terror when academics and cultural leaders – like Bokator Grandmasters – were actively sought out and murdered by the death squads. The goal was to eliminate all traces of the nation’s history and culture, with a view to replacing it with a Communist utopia. The vast scale of the Killing Fields meant that Pol Pot and his minions nearly succeeded.
Grandmaster Sam, like many others, fled the country. By the early 1990s, he landed in Long Beach, California. However, as time went by, and the situation in his country returned to normalcy, he began to realize that Bokator, along with many other treasures of old Khmer culture, was on the brink of vanishing completely. He returned to Cambodia to establish the Bokator Academy, and the film charts how the team made up of those first students – including Tharoth – went on to take second prize at the World Competition of Traditional Martial Arts in South Korea. As documented in the film, Tharoth was one of only two female Bokator students in the first few years. “Our young generation didn’t even know it,” she says. That’s changing, with more female students becoming involved in the sport – many of them inspired by The Little Frog herself.
Tharoth’s involvement in Bokator was pretty much accidental. “I went to see my friend compete,” she recalls. “I met the Grandmaster by accident.” As she spoke to Grandmaster San at the event, she asked him what he thought about girls becoming involved in the sport. He was very enthusiastic about the idea, and persuaded her based on three distinct advantages – fitness, self-defence and defending her family, and preserving Khmer culture. “This really hit my heart,” Tharoth said.
Even though it had been decades since the end of the violent cultural purge, any Bokator devotees left in the country were driven into hiding, scattered across the countryside. As the film shows, when Grandmaster San tried to reach out in his initial attempts to reestablish the sport across the country from him base at the Bokator Academy in Phnom Penh, he met with resistance. “The old generation didn’t want to share their story,” Tharoth said. “I don’t
understand it,” she admitted. The Killing Fields still cast long shadows that a newer generation may not ever truly grasp.
A multi-faceted martial art, Bokator lends itself to MMA competition. It involves hand-to-hand combat, grappling moves, and the use of weapons like staffs. As a martial art, it emphasizes acting quickly to find your opponent’s vulnerabilities and then exploit them immediately. “We always use everything in our body,” she explained. “It’s complete.”
Piecing back together the moves and techniques of the ancient practice was part of the task Grandmaster San imposed on himself in reestablishing Bokator. “Most of the techniques were lost,” Tharoth says. Part of that re-education involved a trip to the storied ruins of Angkor Wat. The walls of the huge, sprawling complex of temples and other buildings that marked the capitals of the Khmer Empire, date from the 9th to the 12th centuries, and are decorated with carvings. Many of them, in fact, depict Bokator movements.
It is thought that the origins of Bokator go back about 1,700 years. It began not as a sport, but as a real life combat technique. There was no real winner of the competition. “If you lost, you die,” Tharoth said. “They used raw string wrapped around their fingers.” She says it was the French colonial powers who took interest in the art and turned it into the competitive sport it is today. “They made us wear gloves,” she said.
There’s more to Bokator than just physical fitness and self-defense. “It makes us strong – mental and physical,” Tharoth said. She’s seen the evolution of how women in sport are regarded first hand. In the beginning, most people were against female involvement in the sport. “Our culture is … women stay at home,” she smiled. “Some people were mocking me, male and female.” Nowadays, that’s changed. She sees a lot more acceptance, and recognition of her own role, with many female fans in Cambodia who look up to her for inspiration. “They say, ‘We are so proud of you as a woman.’”
Part of the struggle being involved in a martial art that is still establishing its own protocols, standards, and practices is figuring out how to advance in the sport. Today in his seventies, Grandmaster San devotes much of his time to writing manuals and documenting techniques.
Tharoth says that she felt a little self conscious of her inexperience in the beginning, especially the lack of competitive experience. “I was a martial artist, doing only performance,” she explains. She heard naysayers around her doubting her abilities, and it made her want to prove them wrong. “It evolved into MMA,” she explained. “I just wanted to test myself.”
Around the same time that her fighting career was taking off, she began to make some contacts in the film industry. Her photogenic fighting skills made her a natural for industry scouts. Acting along with fighting really was a dream come true. “It was my big dream when I was little,” she admitted. Her acting credits include Jailbreak (2017), and First They Killed My Father (2017) both available on Netflix, and she serves as assistant director in the 2018 Cambodian thriller The Prey, among others.
Other Bokator fighters are involved in the local movie industry – it’s another way to help promote the sport and raise its profile both nationally and internationally. “To bring Cambodia back to the world,” Tharoth added.
Tharoth watches UFC fights when she can. “I have a lot of favourites,” she gushed. In particular, she points out fighters like Ronda Rousey and Michelle Waterson. Tharoth is humble about her own current status as an emerging fighter early in her career, but the UFC is a goal she has in sight. “To be in the UFC, I also have a dream. My wish it to have at least one competition.” She knows it probably depends on finding a generous sponsor to fight her way in, but given the odds she and the sport have already overcome, it seems like a good bet.
For now, her own career plans are on hold while she helps promote the documentary as it continues to screen in festivals around the world, with a view to nailing distribution deals. She was scheduled to compete in a fight organized by Full Metal Dojo, a Bangkok based MMA fight promoter, but canceled it to make a personal appearance in Canada for the Hamilton Film Festival screening. Tharoth feels she owes the filmmakers their five-year sacrifice in making the documentary, as well as the others in the movie, and the sport itself, to play her part in helping to make it a success.
Filmmakers and partners in life and work Mark Bochsler (director) and Sandra Leuba (producer) bring a wealth of experience to the project. A native of Hamilton, Ontario, Mark’sfilms have screened at Cannes and other international festivals, and on TV. The movie had its international premiere at the Austin Film Festival earlier this year, and its Canadian premiere at the Hamilton Film Festival. It also screened at the Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival (PAAFF) earlier in November.
Tharoth had just arrived in Canada the day before the conversation, with a typical visitor’s reaction. “It’s so cold for me,” she laughed. Still, she’s happy to have the chance to visit. “It was a dream country I wanted to visit,” she said, excited to see snow for the first time in her life.
After the round of screenings, Tharoth is eager to take up her place in the cage again – much to the delight of her burgeoning league of fans in Southeast Asia. “They call me Queen of the Cage,” she said.
“I love fighting too much.”