It is a shame when anything that predates the Khmer Rouge is lost, even when it is an ugly Brutalist architectural behemoth. Such was the case with the so-called “White Building” in Phnom Penh. Kavich Neang documents the chaotic relocation process for three families (including his own) in Last Night I Saw You Smiling, which screens tomorrow during the 2019 Chicago Underground Film Festival.
Originally known as the Municipal Apartments, the White Building was constructed in 1963 to be affordable, working-class housing. When the Khmer Rouge took power and emptied the cities, the forced evacuation of the White Building became a microcosmic symbol of the national madness. After the fall of the regime, the building maintained its cultural importance as the residence for many local artists and government officials, despite the poor level of upkeep.
With the help of the new property owners, the White Building was finally condemned. Many of the neighbors Neang captures on-screen openly compare their second exodus to the horrifying events of 1975, even though this time they are getting financial compensation. Perhaps not so surprisingly, many of the residents are openly skeptical regarding whether the government and developer will come through with the promised funds—probably with good reason.
Frankly, Last Night is more of an anthropological record than a documentary that is appropriate for general consumers. Although Neang incorporates several intimate musical performances, he does not concretely establish any of the residents’ personalities or their relationships to one another. The one refreshing exception is his charming aunt, who could have been a star vocalist, were it not for her shyness.
Ironically, viewers will get a vivid, tactile sense of what the building was like during its final days—and it looks alarmingly unsafe, as if a strong breeze could have toppled the crumbling walls. It is regretful to witness this community being dissolved, much like the hutongs in Beijing, but nobody watching the film will be able to dismiss the safety concerns. Recommended only for admirers of uncompromising observational documentarians like Wang Bing and J.P.Sniadecki, Last Night I Saw You Smiling screens tomorrow (6/9) during this year’s Chicago Underground Film Festival.