The frustrated dreams of three young men eventually collide in Jessé Miceli’s aptly titled debut Coalesce (Les affluents). Starring mainly non-professional actors, Miceli’s neon-lit journey through the backstreets of Phnom Penh at night exposes a different side of a changing nation caught in the midst of rising urbanisation while contending with the aspirations both of neighbouring economic powers and a thriving ex-pat community. Yet in the end the prognosis is not as bleak as it first seems, some dreams are achieved, if imperfectly, while even those which are not still may be.
The youngest of the three men, teenager Songsa (Sek Songsa), says almost nothing and if he has a dream it is perhaps only to live his own life as he pleases. 20-year-old Thy (Rom Rithy), meanwhile, yearns for a motorcycle and, apparently disowned by his father who prefers his half-brother, has taken a job as a host/dancer in a gay bar frequented mainly by Western men. 24-year old Phearum (Eang Phearum) borrowed money to buy a taxi to earn money for his family who are in danger of losing their land but is privately preoccupied and perhaps defeated by the news that his schoolteacher wife is expecting a baby.
Each of the men ultimately find themselves in Phnom Penh in search of different things but discovering something much the same. The contrast with the rural homes of Songsa and Phearum couldn’t be more stark even if quite literally presented in day and night. Songsa, it seems, did not perhaps want to go to the city and especially to sell knock off jeans from a disused taxi bus at the behest of his frustrated tuktuk driver uncle, but in any case the responsibility proves too much for him and he’s clearly not ready for the adult world his uncle and the owner of the bus, Leap, already inhabit. He resents their drinking and rebuffs their attempts to force him to join them, but alone on the bus at night finds himself subject to another element of city darkness as a drunken middle-aged man crawls in through the window and attempts to grope him. His only solace is discovered when he wanders off and stumbles into a death metal rave, head banging his frustrations away.
Across town, Phearum is at another party in an upscale gallery invited by two, fairly obnoxious, Western women who climbed into his cab not long after he dropped his wife off at a doctor’s clinic for a potentially dangerous medical procedure. Already drunk, the women insult and belittle Phearum in English while one eventually tries to proposition him, offering money when he turns her down. Phearum doesn’t take it but appears to accept the situation with good humour and bemusement. Thy, meanwhile, eventually turns to casual sex work to pay for a bike an injured friend of a friend needs to sell. It’s not clear if Thy is actually attracted to men even if not exclusively, later taking a girl home after a bike ride through the country, or merely in need of well-paying work but it’s difficult to dismiss the implications of exploitation at the American-run club which seems to cater almost exclusively to Westerners exoticising the young, good looking Cambodian staff who earn a dollar’s commission on every drink sold.
Then again, Phearum’s dream is to give up his taxi and open a garage selling cars to the influx of Chinese businessmen driving the expansion of the local economy largely through casinos and other leisure facilities supported by the tourist trade. He listens intently to an estate agent in the back of his cab who works for Chinese developers, keenly asking about the price of land perhaps weighing up selling rather than buying. The aspirations of the three men are eventually headed for an ironic collision, though the “one year later” conclusion perhaps seems unduly contrived filled as it is with exposition and the conceit that former strangers have become lifelong friends through a single, traumatic episode. Nevertheless, there is more hope than expected in Miceli’s vision even if tempered by compromise as the trio remain determined to push forward having identified their direction of travel, reclaiming the city as their own while also looking out for each other in what appears to be an often hostile environment.
Coalesce streams in the US until March 21 as part of the 12th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.
Original trailer (English subtitles)