Judging from the throngs of bare-headed riders cruising their motorbikes around the streets of Phnom Penh, Cambodia is quite lax when it comes to helmet laws. The same is true of workplace safety regulations. Building the luxury condos on Koh Pich is a hard way to make $150 a month, but it still represents a good gig for Bora and his three meathead companions. Unfortunately, romantic jealousies and on-site accidents will fray their friendships in Davy Chou’s Diamond Island (trailer here), which begins a week-long engagement this Thursday at MoMA.
Koh Pic (“Diamond Island” in English) was once just a spit of sand in the Tonlé Sap-Mekong River confluence, where only a handful of hardscrabble fishermen lived. Now it is the anticipated home of Cambodia’s nouveau riche and the weekend hang-spot for Phnom Penh teen hipsters. Although Bora and his pals are roughly the same age as the latter, they still have trouble relating. It is a class thing, but somehow Bora’s long lost older brother Solei managed to transcend it. After cutting ties with the family, Solei managed to land an American sponsor for his studies and fell in with a privileged and pretty crowd.
Their reunion is awkward, but not completely without affection. In fact, Solei promises Bora entrée into his world of comparative opportunity, but he insists on firewalls separating him from their family and Bora’s luggish pals. That inevitably leads to tension, especially with Bora’s childhood best friend, Dy. However, he will risk Solei’s displeasure when he starts seeing Aza, a pretty resident of a legacy Koh Pich shanty-settlement.
Diamond Island probably sounds like an exercise in slow cinema miserablism, but it is more plotting and pacey than cineastes might expect, especially if they have seen Chou’s somewhat diffuse narrative short Cambodia 2099. It still cannot match the power of Golden Slumber, his exploration of the Cambodian film industry devastated by the Khmer Rouge, but that film is close to being a documentary masterpiece.
In any event, sexual frustration, sibling tension, and dangerous work conditions are all the stuff of highly-relatable human drama. Chou’s cast of nonprofessional actors (at least until now) are completely natural-looking, utterly without affectation, and mostly right on the money. Frankly, they give the film a docu-hybrid feeling. However, Chou and cinematographer Thomas Favel often counteract that vibe with their visually striking use of saturated colors and neon-noir nightscapes. They also capitalize on the sprawling city vistas to overwhelm their characters, like insignificant ants.