White Building (ប៊ូឌីញ ស, Kavich Neang, 2021)

“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)

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)