Charismatic Cambodian Cyclo Star in ‘City of Ghosts’ Dies

Tributes have been paid to Kem Sereyvuth, a former motodop driver who rose to Hollywood fame after being hand-picked by US actor Matt Dillon to star in the 2002 film, City of Ghosts
Kem Sereyvuth is seen in an undated photo with Snowy, who also acted in the ‘City of Ghosts’. Kiripost via Mariam Arthur
Kem Sereyvuth is seen in an undated photo with Snowy, who also acted in the ‘City of Ghosts’. Kiripost via Mariam Arthur

Friends and family have paid tribute to Kem Sereyvuth, an actor who was the “highlight” in Matt Dillon's film ‘City of Ghosts’, who has died of hepatitis C at the age of 57.

Sereyvuth made his Hollywood debut in 2002 when he was plucked from the streets of Phnom Penh by Matt Dillon, after offering the award-winning American actor a ride on his moto. He went on to play charismatic cyclo driver Sok in ‘City of Ghosts’.

Sereyvuth died of hepatitis C on October 13 after battling illness, including severely swollen legs, for about seven months, his wife Nak Sorkphea said on Thursday.

“He was a motodop driver and an American wanted an actor and saw him,” Sorkphea said, adding he was paid $6,000 for his part in the film. The family used some of the money from this film and others to buy cows, a farm and a flat. “People know him,” she said.

The family now lives in Phnom Penh’s Choam Chao commune.

Researcher Andy Brouwer said Sereyvuth was the highlight of the film and was portrayed as amiable, good-hearted and likeable. These are all characteristics Brouwer associates with the moto drivers he encountered during his early visits to Cambodia in the 1990s.

According to Brouwer, Dillon originally spotted Sereyvuth in front of Capitol Guest House in Phnom Penh after the motodop driver offered him a lift.

“Dillon declined, but he liked his face, took his photograph and asked him to audition. The Hollywood star set him up with lessons in English, acting and driving,” Brouwer wrote on his Facebook post.

Sereyvuth was a “natural”, Dillon gushed, according to Brouwer. He grew up in an orphanage in Kampong Thom province, joined the army and served for three years, and worked under UNTAC as an electoral official before moving to Phnom Penh in the hope of finding a better life.

“In the city, he used his English skills in his job driving tourists around the capital on his moto, combining it with a second job as an Interior Ministry policeman. The lure of Hollywood was but a brief respite from the more mundane,” Brouwer wrote. “[Sereyvuth] used his fee from his film debut to renovate his family farm in Takeo province. My sincere condolences go to his family and friends.”

Mariam Arthur, Chair at Cambodia Oscar Selection Committee (COSC), said she attended the seventh day of Sereyvuth’s funeral on Tuesday. She met him at the Sundance Film Festival in 2003 during a premiere of City of Ghosts.

The film touched Arthur and Sereyvuth invited her to meet his family. Three years later, she visited Cambodia, fell in love with the Kingdom during a one-night stay with Sereyvuth and his family in Takeo that turned into 10 days, and decided to spend the rest of her life here.

Kem Sereyvuth (third from left) is seen in an undated family photo. Kiripost via Mariam Arthur
Kem Sereyvuth (third from left) is seen in an undated family photo. Kiripost via Mariam Arthur

Arthur said the film crew had spent the day conducting auditions for the role of Sereyvuth but were unable to find the right person. Dillion noticed Sereyvuth and ended up giving him the part. Originally, the role was only one scene, but Dillion recognized Sereyvuth’s talents and realized he would be a good addition to the film, so they added more scenes for him, she said.

“They became life-long friends and stayed in touch over the years,” Arthur told Kiripost on Wednesday.

Sereyvuth’s father was a doctor and his family was evacuated during the Khmer Rouge regime. Soldiers took his father and he was never seen again, Arthur said.

Sereyvuth also took Arthur to S-21 genocide museum in Phnom Penh, where they paid respect to those who had died. That was when he shared the story about his hopes of them one day being reunited.

Kem Sereyvuth is seen in an undated photo at S-21. Kiripost via Mariam Arthur
Kem Sereyvuth is seen in an undated photo at S-21. Kiripost via Mariam Arthur

His mother, brother, and two sisters survived the Pol Pot era, Arthur said.

“He would often start saying his lines and I wouldn't even realize it right away unless he said, "I am safety driver". Then I knew,” Arthur said.

Sereyvuth leaves behind three children. Two have finished their education, while the younger will finish next year.