Friday, May 19, 2023

White Building: Urban Renewal in Cambodia

This former Phenom Penh landmark was not important architecturally. Frankly, it was an ugly eye-sore. However, it was a potent symbol of how things now work in Cambodia. They were originally constructed to serve as affordable working-class housing, but became home to many low-level government officials in the years after the Khmer Rouge madness. In 2017, it was sold to developers, who evicted residents, with the current government’s blessings. Twentysomething-ish Nang watches it happen, knowing he and fellow residents have little power to resist in Kavich Neang’s White Building, which opens today in Brooklyn.

Neang knows the so-called “White Building” well. He was raised there and recorded the traumatic evictions in the documentary,
Last Night I Saw You Smiling. This follow-up film is technically a fictional narrative, but it has a loose structure and docu-realistic vibe, stylistically akin to the films of Jia Zhangke and Davy Chou, who took on producer roles for the White Building.

Nang definitely serves as surrogate for Neang, as he fatalistically watches his way of life disintegrate. Nang’s great ambition was to perform on Cambodia’s TV talent show as part of a hip hop dance trio, but the group break-ups when their frontman moves to France, to join his cousins. His father is the fictional chief of the White Building’s residence association, but Nang instinctively understands the old man’s passivity can never effectively unify the group or prompt any kind of constructive response from the development company. Likewise, he can predict only too well how his father’s similar approach to his infected toe will turn out.

White Building
is an uncompromising art film, but it is a pretty good one. In fact, Sithan Hout is quite remarkable as the tragically dignified father, but most of us could have lived a full life with having to see his disease blackened toe (honestly, the cheese-grater scene in Evil Dead Rise is less disgusting).

Neang and cinematographer Douglas Seok capture some striking visuals. It is a quiet, profoundly sad film, but it also records for posterity the messy bustle of communal life in the White Building. Those who know and respect the work of Jia and Chou will be on solid ground with Neang’s film, but those who don’t, might lose patience with the dreamlike pacing. Recommended accordingly,
White Building opens today at BAM.