“I never thought you’d all leave one by one” a disappointed mother laments, “I thought we’d live here all together” mourning the home she’s just lost while realising that it can never, in that sense at least, be remade. In his 2019 documentary Last Night I Saw You Smiling, Kavich Neang explored the slow destruction of Phnom Penh’s iconic White Building in which he had himself grown up. Revisiting it once again in his fiction feature debut titled simply White Building (ប៊ូឌីញ ស), Neang contemplates the radiating effects of forced displacement, the failed dreams of a more optimistic era, and the destructive power of rampant capitalism as young one man gradually sees his world dismantled all around him.
Young Nang (Piseth Chhun) prays to his household deity for protection from car accidents, which seems infinitely practical, but also success in an upcoming dance competition. Very much of the contemporary generation, Nang and his friends Ah Kha (Chinnaro Soem) and Tol (Sovann Tho) try their luck on TikTok as a street dance trio while picking up extra money convincing cabaret restaurant owners to allow them to perform. Their choice of music does not seem entirely appropriate for the candlelight dinner crowd, the boys appearing after a woman singing a melancholy love ballad and announcing they’ve come to show off “a new kind of hip hop dance”, but they are able to make enough for a few drinks and snacks especially after Nang cheekily announces that they are all orphans dancing to support their studies. This is obviously not true, though Nang will in one sense if not the literal soon find himself orphaned as friends and neighbours begin to move away, his community scattered when the famed White Building can avoid its inevitable demolition no longer.
Built on reclaimed land, the iconic housing complex was completed in the early ‘60s as a symbol of a new and aspirant nation. It first began to fall into disrepair, equally symbolically, during the repressive years of the Khmer Rouge. The tenants began to return after the regime fell, the building once again a vibrant space populated by artists and civil servants, but the structure continued to deteriorate and was finally declared unsafe in 2015. Attempts to preserve the building for its architectural merits failed, and it was finally torn down two years later. For those who lived there, however, like Nang and his family, the White Building was home, where were they supposed to go now? Many of those who’d lived in the building for decades had been government employees, Nang’s father (Sithan Hout) a sculptor working for the ministry of culture. Yet now they seem to have been abandoned, left at the mercy of an increasingly capitalistic society.
Still young, at first Nang does not seem to pay much attention to the political debates going on around him but witnesses the discord and divide among the residents as his father attempts to chair a community meeting to discuss the latest compensation offer from the developers who’ve bought the land the building sits on. Breaking a cultural taboo he tries to talk to his parents about their predicament, but they prefer not to explain themselves. The problem is that even with the latest increase, those in the smaller apartments in particular will struggle to find comparable accommodation in the contemporary city, effectively priced out of the centre and pushed back towards the periphery or further into the country. For many this means a wholesale reorganisation of their lives, requiring a change in employment or living circumstances, as well as the loss of community as families who’ve lived together for decades are scattered throughout the land. Many want to hold out for a fairer deal, but those in the bigger apartments are growing weary and minded to accept if only to begin moving forward.
After Ah Kha leaves to live with family in France and Tol gives up dancing, Nang begins having nightmares about his broken dreams later haunted by an ominous image of his father in a suit turning and walking away from him down the now empty corridors of the decaying building. He discovers that his father is suffering from the complications of untreated diabetes, a disease which ravages him as the building continues to decline his eventual exit from it quite literally like losing a limb. Tired of arguing with her parents, Nang’s sister has already struck out on her own, her relationship with her mother apparently strained in part by the uncertainty that destabilises their home. The family is eventually forced back to its rural hometown, the parents contemplating the offer of land on a family farm further into the mountains while Nang knows that to seek his own future he must return to the city where his sister has already found him somewhere to live. Robbed of its home, the family is scattered. An ethereal voyage through a changing Phnom Penh, Kavich Neang’s unconventional coming-of-age drama finds its young hero mired in a world of collapse, navigating haunted corridors of perpetual unease and left finally only with confusion and anxiety if perhaps tempered by a new sense of freedom.
White Building screened as part of this year’s BFI London Film Festival.
Clip (English subtitles)