t.l. L’edificio bianco
Cambodia/France/China/Qatar, 2021, 90’, Khmer
Directed by: Kavich Neang
Screenplay: Kavich Neang, Daniel Mattes
Photography (color): Douglas Seok
Editing: Félix Rehm and Kavich Neang
Art Direction: Kanitha Tith
Music: Jean-Charles Bastion
Producers: Davy Chou, Marine Arrighi de Casanova
Co-Producer: Jia Zhang-ke
Cast: Piseth Chhun (Samnang), Sithan Hout (Father), Sokha Uk (Mother), Chinnaro Soem (Ah Kha), Sovann Tho (Tol), Jany Min (Kanha), Chandalin Y (Samphors)
Date of First Release in Territory: April 7th, 2022
A family faces eviction and other dilemmas when the government plans to redevelop their tenement home in downtown Phnom Penh.
The 20-year old son Samnang (Piseth Chhun awarded best actor in Venice Orizzonti, 2021), works as a butcher but dreams of winning a hip hop contest and rehearses hard with his two pals. They also cruise the teeming streets of the city at night on their motorbike trying in vain to pick up girls (an echo of Neang’s earlier short New Land Broken Road with the same actor). The family’s father, a sculptor retired from the Ministry of Culture, has become the tenants’ representative to negotiate eviction terms with the officials, a thankless task that exacerbates his diabetes. An estranged daughter’s occasional visits cause tension with her mother. Eventually the family moves in with relatives in the country but the lure of the city is strong and Samnang returns to see the White Building being demolished.
It says a lot about a film when the most suspenseful moment comes with the unbandaging of a character’s big toe – in this case the father’s neglect of his diabetes has led to gangrene and possible amputation of his foot. Such detail suggests Neang’s film as almost a resume of recent (South East) Asian cinema with international appeal. The displacement of families due to urban renewal in developing economies; physical decline as a barometer of the nation (cf also the boil on Coco Martin’s butt in Brillante Mendoza’s Serbis – another film about a decaying building, and Raymond Bagatsing’s rotting tooth in Lav Diaz’ The Criminal of Barrio Concepcion); and a focus on medical treatments that echo Apitchatpong Weerathasakul’s hospitals and physicians in films such as Mysterious Object at Noon and Syndromes and a Century. There are also echoes of early Jia Zhang-ke (a producer on this film) such as louche youths wandering through life on two-wheeled vehicles, performances in garishly lit sad bars and clubs, and the cold light of reality.
Yet Kavich Neang’s debut feature speaks with a powerful and distinctive voice. The film follows on from his earlier documentary Last Night I Saw You Smiling, a portrait of the inhabitants of the White Building where he was brought up and lived with his family. In the feature, the building takes on a symbolic significance. Built in the early 1960s to house middle class families, it reflected Prince Sihanouk’s aspirations to the nation’s modernization (Sihanouk’s documentary Kampuchea 1965 is referenced in the film). It survived the Khmer Rouge and the Pol Pot holocaust of the 1970s, and in its last phase, the redevelopment of the city by which time it had become something of an urban blight and was demolished in 2017.
The building stands as a witness to all these developments and as a link between past and present in Cambodia’s recent and often tragic history. It exudes a ghostly omnipresence, from its opening drone shot where we look down on the building from the skies, and then later in a short scene where Samnang’s father inexplicably appears besuited in the deserted corridors of the building, himself like a ghost of the past (when he was a ministry employee) and the future (after his death).
Neang handles narrative shifts with skill. The film begins with youthful exuberance as Samnang aims for hip hop glory but dreams are dispelled by the realities of looming eviction. With the depressed mood, we are more focused on the father (a superior performance by Sithan Hout), and how he faces the twin crises of the building’s fate and his deteriorating health. Neang’s ability to draw complex and intertwined metaphors from parallel images promises much for his future as a filmmaker.
Kavich Neang (b. Phnom Penh, 1987) is a film director, producer and co-founder of independent film company Anti-Archive. His first two short documentaries were made with help from leading Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh. His first fiction was a short in a Southeast Asian omnibus (2018). His feature-length documentary film Last Night I Saw You Smiling (2019) won several awards around the world. The White Building premiered in Venice Orizzonti and won best actor award. It was Cambodia’s submission to the Academy Awards 2022.
2011 – A Scale Boy (short)
2013 – Where I Go
2015 – Three Wheels (short)
2015 – Goodbye Phnom Penh (short)
2018 – New Land Broken Road (short)
2019 – Last Night I Saw You Smiling
2021 – The White Building