Coalesce (Les affluents, Jessé Miceli, 2020)

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)

MEKONG 2030 (Kulikar Sotho, Anysay Keola, Sai Naw Kham, Anocha Suwichakornpong, Pham Ngoc Lân, 2020)

Literally on the shores of an ecological crisis, the communities along the Mekong River know better than most the dangers of climate change and increasing industrialisation. Commissioned by the Luang Prabang Film Festival, MEKONG 2030 takes its cues from the recent “ten years” phenomenon, bringing together five directors from different nations along the Mekong to imagine what the situation might be in a decade’s time. 

Environmental concerns and changing times are clearly at the forefront of Cambodian director Kulikar Sotho’s Soul River in which Klark, an indigenous huntsman, discovers an ancient statue in the forest and determines to sell it to buy a better future for himself and his wife having lost everything in a flood caused by deforestation and the affects of increasing industrialisation. Unfortunately he is challenged by Sok, a former fisherman forced onto the land due to the lack of fish in the river, who claims to be the land’s owner and insists the statue is his. An amusing stand off, Klark’s machete vs Sok’s walkie-talkie, signals their respective positions as avatars of new and old. Nevertheless, the statue is too heavy for one man to carry and so they agree to work together, occasionally quibbling over their respective cuts and irritating Klark’s conflicted wife Ladet whose premonition that the statue is cursed is well and truly borne out as the two men begin to lose themselves in greed and suspicion. Yet as her closing voice over reminds us their sin is emblematic of their times in their irresponsible and arrogant desire to “sell” their nation’s ancestral treasures, be they forests, rivers, or statues the protection of which should have been their only duty. 

Depleting fish stocks and industrial pollution are also a persistent theme in the entry from Laos as a worried sister explains to her student brother concerned to see nets covered in dust on his return home from university. Xe is worried because his sister has a bruise on her face and seems to have separated from her husband and children she says to look after their mother who, as it turns out, is immune to the ongoing plague and therefore a valuable commodity to those hoping to find a vaccine. The bruise was apparently caused when their older brother, who has since become a warlord, kidnapped mum in order to monopolise her exploitation. The sister wants Xe to kidnap her back, but the deeper he gets into this awkward situation the more conflicted Xe feels knowing that whatever is actually going on both of his siblings are in effect determined to bleed his mother dry for economic gain. 

The precarious position of the older generation and the side effects of industrialisation raise their heads again in chapter three, Myanmar’s The Forgotten Voices of the Mekong in which well-meaning young village chief Charlie determines to “modernise” his community by inviting a mining conglomerate to begin digging gold on their land. An old grandma patiently teaching her grandson to care for the local herb grown for its medicinal properties is the voice of opposition, pointing out that there is nothing wrong with their lives as they are and so she feels they don’t need the complications of the “modernity” Charlie is determined to bring them. He tells her that he’s the chief now and so they’ll do as he says and so she calmly walks out of the meeting, but her animosity is soon vindicated when farmers complain their livestock has been poisoned after drinking water contaminated by the mine. Not long after a child is taken ill. Devils devour everything, but there is something we can do the old woman assures her grandson: make the mountains green again. 

Shifting into a more abstract register, Anocha Suwichakornpong’s Thai entry The Line takes the river as a protagonist through the film within the film playing on a gallery wall though apparently in some way unsatisfying to its creator. Speaking in a robotic Mandarin, the video places an ironic voiceover on top of images of the river and the city juxtaposing an incongruous family history with a vision of modernity. Meanwhile, a young intern makes smalltalk with her temporary bosses who seem to have no time for her about a weird animal captured on camera in the river near her hometown, and the artist explains her intention of dramatising a vision of space and time through the story of the river.  

The sense of the Mekong as liquid time recurs in the final instalment, Vietnam’s The Unseen River, in which two stories, one of youth and the other age, run in parallel. While a young couple make a visit to a temple hoping to find a cure for the boy’s restless sleep, a middle-aged woman catches sight of a somehow familiar dog that serendipitously reunites her with her long-absent first love who went abroad to study shortly before they dammed the river. In a piece of possibly unhelpful advice, the old monk tells the young man that all he needs to do is “believe” in the act of sleeping. Sinking into a deep sleep is like surrendering yourself to the current he explains, directly linking the rythms of life to the river while the young monk attributes their youthful llistlessness, the failure to see a future that has prevented the young couple marrying, to the inability to dream. The river is both past and future, dream and reality. It is disconnection with the natural world which has so affected the young man, something he perhaps repairs borrowing the monk’s decommissioned fishing rod to gaze upon the wide river under the light of the moon. 

Giving voice to the anxieties of climate change, overdevelopment, the unequal power dynamics of large corporations operating in rural communities, the erosion of traditional culture, and the loss of the natural world, MEKONG 2030 issues a strong warning against ecological complacency but also rediscovers a kind of serenity in the river’s eternal presence even as it is perhaps flowing away from us. 


MEKONG 2030 streamed as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival. Readers in Poland will also have the opportunity to stream MEKONG 2030 as part of the 14th Five Flavours Film Festival 25th November to 6th December.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Last Night I Saw You Smiling (យប់មិញបងឃើញអូនញញឹម, Kavich Neang, 2019)

LastNightISawYouSmiling“We’re used to seeing a house for its roof, windows, and walls. But in the end, as we move out of here, it breaks my heart.” Words ironically offered by a sculptor, one who might above all have learned to fall in love with the shape of things, as he prepares to leave a place in which he has made his life. Filmmaker Kavich Neang grew up in the iconic “White Building” of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Built in 1963, the building was a bold statement from a new nation as it threw off the colonial yoke to claim a new identity, literally extending the territory as it situated itself on reclaimed land – a well appointed complex of bright white stone amid the serenity of spacious parkland.

Intended to house those of moderate income, the White Building first fell into disrepair during the brutalising reign of the Khmer Rouge whose evacuation of the city left it empty for four years. In 1979 after the regime fell, the people began to return and the building once again became a beacon of culture in a modernising city, a vertical village home to artists and civil servants. Progress, however, began to work it against it, and by the time it was condemned in 2015 the building was regarded by many as a slum associated with drugs, crime, and sex work. Nevertheless, it was still home to 493 families, Neang’s among them, many of whom had lived there since the ‘80s and vividly recall the last time they were told they would need to vacate.

The anxieties are, of course, different, but they are there all the same. No one is marching them out by gunpoint, and they have a choice in where they go (in theory, at least), but the truth remains that people are being forced out of their homes against their will. While it is true that the building may have become unsafe and has been deemed unsalvageable despite attempts to preserve its architectural history, many worry that the promised compensation will never arrive or that, for those who lived in the smaller flats, they have been priced out of the modern Phnom Penh and will not be able to find equivalent accommodation using only the money they have been offered but have not yet received. This turns out to be more or less the case with many of the elderly residents returning to live with extended family, in some cases leaving the city entirely, while others retreat to the suburban margins. 

In this sense, Neang documents his neighbours and family “burying” the building as they slowly dismantle the history of their lives within it. At an early meeting with officials, some are keen to confirm that they will be allowed to take doors and windows with them, and so we gradually see doorframes pulled away from walls and fretwork removed from the outside to be incongruously pulled back in. Yet others struggle to bundle their personal belongings, unsure of where they’re going or what they will need in the knowledge they will never, can never return because this place will eventually cease to exist.

Indeed, taking its name from a nostalgic pop song, Last Night I Saw You Smiling (យប់មិញបងឃើញអូនញញឹម) is a funeral elegy for the spirit of a place now departing. Neang opens with a silent corridor and then fills it with life – children playing, women singing, doors open in neighbourly communion. He ends in the same place as the building breathes its last, either liberated or devoured, transitioning to bright white light as if its soul really had departed to a better place. Retro pop songs fill the air singing of lost love, not only of its immediate pain but of the incurable longing of unfulfilled desire for a world that no longer exists and lives only in the halls of memory. You can never go home again, because “home” is a moment, a feeling which is always passing and forever elusive. People give a place soul, only to for that connection to be painfully severed when they must inevitably leave it leaving a piece of themselves behind. The White Building is gone, the community scattered, but the ghost of it lives on, invisible yet ever present.


Screened as part of the 2019 Open City Documentary Festival in partnership with Day For Night who will be distributing the film in the UK.

Festival trailer (English subtitles)