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)

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)