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)

The Road to Mandalay (再見瓦城, Midi Z, 2016)

再見瓦城前導海報-GokKipling’s Mandalay, as uncomfortable as it seems to us now, is an imperialistic nostalgia trip through the orientalised, “exotic” East. Midi Z adopts a well known line of the poem, The Road to Mandalay (再見瓦城, Zài Jiàn Wǎ Chéng), as an ironic comment on the journey undertaken by the central pair of hopeful migrants crossing from Myanmar into Thailand each for different reasons but both in search of something unavailable to them at home.

Lianqing (Wu Ke-xi) crosses a river on a dingy and is met by a man on a motorbike who takes her to a truck which will take her into Bangkok. Only a second class passenger, Lianqing is about to huddle into a hidden compartment in the vehicle’s boot when a man volunteers to give up his seat in the front so that she can have a more comfortable journey. When they arrive, the man, Guo (Kai Ko), offers to help her find work and gives her his cousin’s phone number so they can keep in touch. Lianqiang is grateful but not particularly interested and tries to fob him off with a jar of shrimp paste as a thank you.

Mostly told through Lianqing’s eyes, her migration story is a difficult one. The friend she’s come to meet, Hua, isn’t even there when she arrives and is in a permanently bad mood after having lost her job due to not having the proper documentation. The other two women in the flat, one of whom, Cai, is also from her village, are currently working in the sex trade – something which they don’t particularly advise Lianqing take up, but finding a job without papers proves near impossible. Lianqiang eventually finds work as a dishwasher in a restaurant which, all things considered, suits her well enough – the work is menial and intensive, but the atmosphere is relaxed, the boss is OK, and she still earns enough to live on and send money home. Guo objects to Lianqing working in such a lowly place and wants her to come to work in a factory with him where the pay is better but Lianqing prefers her independent city life to an oppressive factory-bound existence. Nevertheless when the restaurant is raided she is forced to join Guo’s factory after running out of other options.

Though The Road to Mandalay is often described as a love story, its central romance is as thorny as the protagonists’ liminal status. Guo’s early gesture of self sacrifice looks like altruistic chivalry, but his designs on Lianqing are obvious from the outset. His big brotherly protection soon veers off into a kind of patronising paternalism before developing into something more worryingly possessive. Despite appearing to avoid seeming overbearing, Guo’s personal insecurities eventually lead him into the worst kind of betrayal when he tries to stop Lianqing from acquiring her work papers in the belief that they will take her away from him.

Guo’s philosophies are all short-term. He wants to earn as much money as possible with the idea of eventually going back to Myanmar and perhaps opening a shop selling imported Chinese clothing. Lianqing’s thinking couldn’t be more different. Her plans are longterm. She wants her work permit to get a proper, middle-class city job so she can have a better quality of life. After getting her work permit she wants a Thai passport which will allow her to move on again, perhaps to Taiwan, to further improve her living standards and future prospects. Guo wants Lianqing and he wants her to come home with him. He is not prepared to follow her and knows that she does not envisage the same kind of future as he does. Prompted by Lianqing’s talk of going to Taiwan, Guo asks her if she’s ever thought about getting married. Sensing his intention, Lianqing’s answer is a flat no. It’s too soon, she wants something more out of life than being someone’s wife.

Thailand, however, is not particularly supportive of her dreams. The migrants’ lives are hard. The streets are regularly patrolled at night with police checking IDs and constant crackdowns mean the visa rules are being enforced though bribery is also rife. Migrants present an easy point of exploitation for all as they have no way of protecting themselves and are unable to go to the authorities due to their undocumented status. Lianqing decides to get a permit through the back door, bribing officials through a broker, but the papers she paid a small fortune for are next to worthless and her only other options involve identity theft. At the factory she doesn’t even have an identity as her name is taken away from her and replaced with a number. When another migrant from Myanmar is badly injured in an accident, Lianqing and the others are forced to sign a waver form which absolves the factory of responsibility and declares the matter “settled” with an agreement to pay medical costs but with no further compensation or legal recourse. It’s  no wonder that the common advice swapped between migrants is to leave Thailand as soon as possible for somewhere less hostile to young people with big dreams.

Midi Z’s visual style is broadly naturalistic but slips into surrealism as Lianqing is forced to consider working in the sex trade while Guo impotently throws logs into a furnace with drug fuelled frustration. Lianqing might have been able to escape her economic circumstances, but she can’t escape the net of patriarchy presented by men like Guo who can’t accept her desire for independence and negation of their hopes and dreams which largely rely on her agreeing to conform to their visions rather than her own. Chances of success are slim yet Lianqing refuses to give up on her determination for a better future. For others, however, this dead end life of constant frustration is bound only for tragedy with no hope in sight.


The Road to Mandalay screens at Regent Street Cinema on 26th September before opening in selected cinemas courtesy of Day for Night. Further dates scheduled so far include:

Original trailer (dialogue free)

By the Time it Gets Dark (ดาวคะนอง, Anocha Suwichakornpong, 2016)

by the time it gets darkAnocha Suwichakornpong’s second feature, By the Time it Gets Dark (ดาวคะนอง.Dao Khanong), bills itself as an exploration of a traumatic moment from the recent past but quickly subverts this conceit for a wider meditation on the veracity of cinema. Beginning in a manner typical of indie-leaning Thai films, Anocha gently undercuts herself as her images prism into their separate “realities”, informing and commenting on each other but perhaps not fully interacting. The Thammasat University student massacre of 1976 is the dark genesis of this fracturing future, but it’s also in the process of becoming a collective legend, cementing a “historical truth” as cultural currency even whilst expunged from the history books, leaving its young lost in a black hole of memory from which they are powerless to emerge.

A young woman welcomes an older one to a remote country villa. The younger woman treats the older with respect, talks up the merits of the house and insists she take the larger upstairs room. The younger woman, Ann (Visra Vichit-Vadakan), is a 30-something filmmaker who has invited the older woman, Teaw (Rassami Paoluengtong) – a former student protest leader turned respected writer,  for a prolonged interview period she hopes to use as research for a film about the events of 1976. Ill equipped to cope with the weight of her grim investigation, Ann begins to slip into something like a nervous breakdown filled with strange visions culminating in a forest chase in which she follows the figure of a young girl in a bear suit, eventually falling into a grove next to a strange sparkly mushroom.

Anocha takes us on an odyssey through contemporary Thailand all the while holding 1976 in the back of the frame. From Ann we jump to Peter (Arak Amornsupasiri), whom we meet as a tabacco farmer only to realise he’s also a much lusted after singer/actor/model with a complicated love life and media set friends. Peter’s story seems unrelated but then it turns out he might be up for a part in Ann’s movie (written for him, in director speak at least as one of his less tactful friends points out), but more than that they’re connected by the shadowy figure of an invisible working class woman, Nong (Atchara Suwan), whom we first met serving coffee to Ann and Teaw at a rural bar but now switches between waitressing at a country club, bussing at riverboat diner, and cleaning toilets at a gym. Unseen as it is, it is her private revolution which ultimately forces a cinematic reset as the screen dissolves into dizzying disruption only to morph into the true beauty of Thailand’s untouched natural vistas.

Ann intends to film “a drama of sorts” about the events of 1976. An early scene exposes Anocha’s more subtle motive as Ann stages a reconstruction of an act of state brutality. Students lie on their bellies, stripped of their shirts and with hands tied behind backs while soldiers with guns bark at them to keep their faces on the floor. We think this is a flashback – an objective capture of objective truth, but we’re wrong, this is a scene from Ann’s movie and it takes a few liberties with the tale later told by Teaw in which she talks about seeing her fellow students in a similar situation on but a football pitch rather than an indoor hanger. Similarly, we get the first scene again half way through with slightly different lines as two entirely different actresses inhabit the roles of Ann and Teaw. The house is now more opulent, the women more conventionally beautiful and elegantly dressed. We film “the truth”, but we can’t help “colour correcting” it towards that which seems prettier than the way we really view things.

“The truth” is a similarly difficult concept to pin down. Ann is fascinated by the massacre but from her rather privileged, largely apolitical viewpoint she can’t quite understand it. She asks Teaw banal questions about her student life – boyfriends, her parents, the gradually unfolding horror of it all. In one particularly tone deaf moment, she marvels at Teaw as a piece of “living history” – a first hand witness to the (failed) revolution. No, Teaw tersely points out, she is merely “a survivor”. Tellingly, Teaw’s early monologues do not quite tally with her later ones, but asked on her current views towards her past self and her more engaged generation she simply replies that where they saw injustice, the young rose to oppose it. They wanted to make things right – unlike the young of today. Ann obsesses over a failed revolution yet regards herself as an empty vessel who “appropriates the lives of others” for her films. She pithily asks a local waitress where the beans come from for her coffee but doesn’t seem to know what to do with the impressive answer that they’re a locally sourced variety brokered by an American living nearby who speaks excellent Thai right down to mastery of the local dialect. Her concerns are surface ones whereas Teaw felt her concerns to be deeper and more important – her friends died for them, but then nothing in particular came of it.

The camera lies repeatedly, from the restaged footage to ever the apparent reframing of “reality” and our own inability to discern one from the other. Peter’s life is perfect, but then perhaps it’s not or at any rate, he’s subject to the same vagaries of fate as the rest of us. Nong, the working class woman may be one girl trapped in a casual employment nightmare or a symbol of the faceless masses who are largely ignored by the likes of Peter and his friends and even by the well meaning Ann, gazing out into a world which they can barely touch. Cinema is not a place for objective truths but for emotional ones – a ghost can be interrogated, its existence explained, but it cannot be exorcised, the film traps it in concentric mirrors, forever distorting its reflection.


Released in the UK by Day for Night

Original trailer (English subtitles)