Based on the true story of a young Teuton who falls for — and stands by — an HIV-positive Cambodian girl, “Same Same but Different” manages to avoid most of the expected potholes while remaining a film typical of its creator, maverick German helmer Detlev Buck. Irreverent humor and down-to-earth characters prevent the potentially soupy mix from curdling in its own juices, and the Asian setting is never exoticized for cheap emotional gains. The film split viewers at its Locarno preem, with some finding it too unemotional, others refreshingly different.
Outside Deutschland, where it will be released next January, “Same” has some chances as a specialty item. However, its considerable amount of English dialogue and handsomely lensed, mainstream look deserve to propel it further afield.
Most remarkably, given its subject, the movie never becomes remotely preachy or didactic; nor does it allow its characters to wallow in their grief. They had sex; they fell in love; she turned out be HIV-positive, so both look for a way to continue their life together. Period.
Characteristically, the script gets the big revelation out of the way at the start, as Sreykeo Soluan (Apinya Sakuljaroensuk), Skyping from Phnom Penh to Hamburg, tells Benjamin Pruefer (David Kross) the bad news. Without further ado, this triggers a flashback to how they met: Ben and pal Ed (Stefan Konarske) are backpacking through Asia and have a wild night of sex and drugs in Phnom Penh, orchestrated by hippie Alex (co-writer Michael Ostrowski), during which Sreykeo willingly spends the night with Ben for $30.
Characters like Ed and Alex are typically spaced-out/womanizing creations from other Buck movies (“Jailbirds,” “Tough Enough”). Throughout the movie, these two bring a lightness to their scenes with the more serious Ben that helps keep the drama from becoming maudlin.
But from the start, too, Sreykeo is shown as a very grounded young woman, not some wilting oriental rose. Though she genuinely loves Ben, she sees that love as carrying financial responsibilities (like supporting her mom’s gambling habit) which Ben sometimes sees as bare-assed exploitation of a “rich” Westerner.
By not making Sreykeo a victim, the film avoids playing into the usual East-West cliches, and even bustling Phnom Penh is portrayed in an offhand, everyday way. As Ben works out his internship in a publishing company back in Hamburg, and then returns to Cambodia to get Sreykeo proper treatment, the script focuses more on the practicalities of their relationship.
However, all this has the effect of downplaying the central romance, and the film starts to bog down when it tries to center more on the characters’ feelings for each other in the final act. Very rarely can “Same” be said to tug at the heartstrings, even in an unsentimental way.
This is no fault of the two leads, whose chemistry is just fine. Kross, whom Buck discovered as a teenager for “Tough Enough,” and who went on to become known internationally for “The Reader,” has a blank-page quality that seems just right for the open-minded, lovestruck Ben, and performs easily in English. Thai actress Sakuljaroensuk, best known for the title role in Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s 2007 “Ploy,” is less at ease with the language — and could be revoiced for Anglo markets — but has just the right looks and bearing to make Sreykeo’s practical character believable.
Blowup from Super 16 looks fine on the bigscreen, and gives the film a slightly rough look that fits Buck’s approach. Music track is an unconventional mixture of songs and rock music that works.