FILM

Hong Kong was refuge for star of Cannes Palme d'Or winner Dheepan

Jesuthasan Anthonythasan fled to city after three years as a child soldier in his native Sri Lanka, and spent six months in Chungking Mansions before moving on to Thailand

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 May, 2015, 3:45pm
UPDATED : Monday, 25 May, 2015, 7:58pm

The lead actor in this year's Cannes festival-winning film about refugees has told of how he took refuge in Hong Kong as a teenager after years fighting in Sri Lanka's civil war.

"The Chungking Mansions - that's where I stayed, for six months," Jesuthasan Antonythasan told the South China Morning Post, hours before the film in which he stars, Dheepan, was named the surprise winner of the French festival's top honour, the Palme d'Or.

Anthonythasan arrived in the city in 1988 as a 19-year-old after three years fighting in the ranks of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or Tamil Tigers, who sought an independent homeland for Sri Lanka's ethnic Tamil minority. The actor added: "I went to Hong Kong because that was the only place I don't need a visa [to go to]."

Antonythasan eventually left for Thailand, where he lived for four years before relocating to Paris in 1993. As with his decision to leave Sri Lanka for Hong Kong five years earlier, his choice of  France was more practical than personal  - rather than a fake British or Canadian passport, he said, he could only locate a French one.

The actor's own experiences echo those of the titular character he plays in Dheepan, which revolves around three Sri Lankan refugees settling into a rough Parisian suburb, and was directed by Frenchman Jacques Audiard. The part was "50 per cent autobiographical", he said. In the film, he plays a former guerilla commander who takes up counterfeit papers and moves to France as part of a bogus family comprising two other refugees.

While the trio initially treat each other with aloofness and contempt, their bonds are eventually strengthened as Dheepan begins to grow into his role as a husband to Yalini (played by Indian stage actress Kalieaswari Srinivasan) and as a father figure to the young Illayaal (newcomer Claudine Vinasithamby).

Like his on-screen character, who takes up a job as a maintenance worker at a dilapidated social housing complex outside Paris, Antonythasan passed through a string of low-paid jobs after arriving in France. He  stacked shelves at supermarkets, cooked and served as a bellhop at the EuroDisney theme park. 

While the fictional Dheepan finally resorts to violence to address problems he sees in life, Antonythasan used more peaceful means to address his concerns. He was actively involved in French left-wing politics, before quitting to dedicate his time to writing. Using the pseudonym Shobasakthi, Antonythasan has penned short stories, plays, essays and literary criticism in the Tamil language. His first novel, Gorilla, based on his past as a child soldier with the Tamil Tigers, was published in 2001 and was translated into English in 2008.

His second novel, Traitor, revolves around a massacre of Tamil political prisoners in 1983, and was released in 2004; its English edition came out in 2010. His latest novel goes on sale in July.

Dheepan is Antonythasan's second feature film. Under his pen name, he co-wrote and starred in Tamil poet-filmmaker Leena Manimekalai's The Dead Sea, which explores the lives of Tamil fishermen in a largely abandoned village in an Indian isthmus once linked to Sri Lanka by a railway bridge.