White Building (2021)

Quick Synopsis: A young man in Cambodia struggles to figure out what to do when his home is scheduled for demolition.

This is quite a slow film, almost glacial at the start. But it works, it makes the whole thing feel more slice of life documentary than a normal film. This feeling, that we’re observers of real life, is backed up by the music, well, the lack of it really. In the opening scenes, we see people dance, play football, and have conversations about girls. There’s no music at the forefront, it’s just people talking. That’s the best thing about this film, how it feels like we’re watching someone’s memories, it all feels very real. This is helped by the friendship in the opening section of the main three. The film does a great job of making you know they’ve known each other for a long time. There’s a genuine warmth to their relationship. You get the feeling this is a definitive period in the characters life. Like it should be backed by a “little did I know, that was the last time the old gang would hang out together, life sure was different after that” 80’s-style voiceover. That friendship is put on the backburner by the film when the plot about the building being knocked down starts (which doesn’t really kick off until thirty minutes in), at this point one of the friends moves away and is never really mentioned again. It’s then that the narrative focuses on one person, and becomes a lot more personal.

It’s a definite tonal shift, when the lead character (Samnang) is away from his friends it changes from something lighthearted and sweet, to something quite sad and hopeless. It stops being a story of friendship, focusing on what he has, and instead becomes a film about poverty and ill health, focusing on what he doesn’t have. He meets up again with one of his friends, but the vibe is different. Them riding around town has an increased air of melancholy about it. If the first section is them being in denial about losing their home, the second section is him realising it and coming to terms with it. You genuinely feel the panic everybody has. There’s a moment where they’re discussing the forced selling, and whether to accept the low offer they’re being offered (which isn’t enough to get a new place), or hold out for more. Someone off-handedly mentions that when this happened to another building, the residents were forced out at gunpoint and left with nothing. It’s something that is made all the more horrifying by how casually it’s mentioned and then glossed over. It’s not something that changes everybody’s mind, almost like they all knew it and accepted it.

On the downside, it is a little dull at points. This is definitely a very personal story (the director grew up in the building, and actually includes footage of the demolition at the end of the film), and that is a strength, but there are times where it feels a bit too personal, like he’s forgotten he’s telling this story to other people. Also, it feels like it assumes everybody knows about the history of the building, I read up on the building before watching, and it definitely helped explain a few things, things which the film probably should have. It not only would have made a few things clearer, but also would have made the building feel more like a character, so we get an emotional resonance when it “dies”. Characters drift in and out without reason.

So an interesting film, and a good one, but not a great one. One final thing, and I know it’s a weird thing to say about an actor who doesn’t even have a picture when you search on google, but Chinnaro Soem carries himself like a damn star in the few moments he’s in it. There’s a strange, almost James Dean quality to him and I want to see him in more.

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