Nearly wiped out by genocide, Long Beach resident helps revive Cambodian martial art

Grandmaster San Kim Sean speaks at a bokator demonstration in Cambodia. Sean is credited with reviving the nearly lost martial art and, along with other bokator masters, has been teaching it to new generations of students. (Courtesy of Sandra Leuba/Surviving Bokator)
Grandmaster San Kim Sean speaks at a bokator demonstration in Cambodia. Sean is credited with reviving the nearly lost martial art and, along with other bokator masters, has been teaching it to new generations of students. (Courtesy of Sandra Leuba/Surviving Bokator)
Tharoth Sam, front left, is one of the two female bokator students taught by grandmaster San Kim Sean. It’s uncommon for women to participate in the martial art, but she is on track to becoming the first female bokator instructor. (Courtesy of Sandra Leuba/Surviving Bokator)
Tharoth Sam, front left, is one of the two female bokator students taught by grandmaster San Kim Sean. It’s uncommon for women to participate in the martial art, but she is on track to becoming the first female bokator instructor. (Courtesy of Sandra Leuba/Surviving Bokator)

When grandmaster San Kim Sean left Long Beach to return to his homeland of Cambodia in 1995, he had one goal: to bring bokator to the next generation of Khmer people. Now, the martial art form is taught in schools in nine provinces of Cambodia and he is the one credited with its revival.

Canadian director Mark Bochsler is telling this story in his first feature film, “Surviving Bokator,” which will be shown Sunday at the Cambodia Town Film Festival at the Art Theatre in Long Beach.

Bokator, pronounced “bok-ah-tau,” was created over a thousand years ago for soldiers to utilize in battle. The entire body is used as a weapon for defense or offense and its techniques are meant to kill, Sean said. The art was in decline in Cambodia even when Sean was beginning to learn it as a kid.

It was further decimated when the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975. The communist regime wanted to turn Cambodia into a rural society with no classes. They marched millions of Cambodians from the cities to the countryside where they were forced into labor on cooperative farms.

“My situation was more than ‘Killing Fields,’ ” Sean said, referring to the 1984 movie depicting the Khmer Rouge’s actions. “It was very dangerous; there was no laughing and you had to survive yourself with anything you could do.”

The Khmer Rouge killed anyone they saw as a threat, especially intellectuals and martial artists. Students, professors, doctors, writers, musicians, soldiers, military officers and many more were executed. Those who had been simple laborers or were able to pass themselves off as laborers survived, and this was how Sean survived when he was captured.

“You had to do something to look like you don’t know anything, that you are the simple people,” Sean said. “... You lied (and said) you were a farmer and you had to be good at acting it.”

When the regime fell in 1979, Sean was allowed to return to Phnom Penh, where he taught martial arts in secret because the Vietnamese government had taken control and prohibited the practice. But after a few months, someone turned him in to authorities and he and his family fled to Thailand. He then moved them to Houston, Texas, where he taught hapkido, a Korean martial art he had also mastered, at the YMCA.

After visiting the Khmer community in Long Beach, he moved his family there in 1984 and continued teaching.

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Returning home

After about 10 years teaching in Long Beach, Sean said he knew he needed to bring bokator back to his country. So he returned to Cambodia and got permission from the government, now a fledgling democracy, to teach martial arts again. He spent a year searching the countryside for other bokator masters who were in hiding and convincing them to teach again.

Sean told them to “come together and teach our young generation of Cambodian people, so that they understand, let them know, let them learn our own tradition.”

They slowly opened up bokator schools and are now teaching all over the country. Cambodia had its first bokator sport championship in 2006 and now celebrates its first female mixed martial arts fighter, Tharoth Sam — one of Sean’s students.

Sam started training when she was 18 years old for self-defense after a scary incident.

“When I first started, I was so into it, I spent almost seven or eight hours at the gym because I feel like I found something that I love,” Sam said. “... Before, I never had any connection with people around me. I was scared and a really shy girl, not talk a lot. Since I got into martial art, it made me more brave.”

Five years later in 2013, Sam started MMA fighting to prove to her doubters she could handle herself in a “real fight,” since bokator is now mainly used in performance fights. She won her first match.

“I want to keep promoting this and to encourage the young generation to keep taking care more of our culture and heritage,” Sam said.

Sam also is an actress with a supporting role in Angelina Jolie’s new movie “First They Killed My Father,” which is screening today at the Cambodia Town Film Festival. She also has an integral role in “Surviving Bokator.”

Making a documentary

Bochsler met Sean while he was in Cambodia for an unrelated work trip. After Sean told him his bokator school was waiting to find out if it could participate in a martial arts competition in Korea, Bochsler became fascinated by the art as a little-known piece of Khmer culture and hatched an idea. He would create a documentary about bokator and follow Sean for seven months as they wait to find out if they can go to Korea.

But that’s not what “Surviving Bokator” is about. As Bochsler and his team were filming, he began to see another story that needed to be told: a conflict between generations as the younger Cambodians try to assert their mastery of bokator.

“When I learned about the bokator story, I came to realize how valuable culture is. ... It’s basically how people identify themselves and identify with each other and once you strip that away from people, what does that look like?” Bochsler said.

Filming that was originally supposed to go for seven months ended up lasting five years. Bochsler said there was a lot of “stop and go,” especially when it came to funding, which was difficult to secure because the film was hard to categorize and obtain grants for. The filmmaker stayed for the initial seven months and returned for several weeks at a time over the years to film as funding was received.

“I never doubted the project or my ability to finish it, but I began doubting my sanity after a while ... because there was so much adversity,” Bochsler said.

The film has been in editing for almost two years now and is in its final stages. The rough cut will be shown Sunday at the Cambodia Town Film Festival. Bochsler said the audience reaction will be gauged for feedback to be used in the final cut.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly reported the year grandmaster San Kim Sean returned to Cambodia. It was 1995.

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