Sunday, February 07, 2016

SBIFF ’16: Dream Land

It still stings to be rejected by a lover, even if your country has a painful history of genocide. These are the “First World” problems faced by Lida, a successful up-market real estate agent, whose territory encompasses Phnom Penh. Life does not just carry on for her and her friends. It careens at light speed. A different sort of Cambodian experience comes to light in American-born-and-based Steve Chen’s Dream Land (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

Lida (Da) is good at her job, but maybe she doesn’t even have to be all that competent. Phenom Penh is booming. To show a luxury condo is to sell it. It does not hurt that she has a good look either. She would turn most men’s heads, but since her current lover Kun is a fashion photographer, his constant contact with beautiful women has apparently made him fickle. He has rarely been around in recent weeks, but when Lida has seen him, his passive aggressive frostiness has left her hurt and confused.

Lida will deal with her frustrations in a variety of ways. Some could come straight out of Sex and the City, but eventually she tries to recharge with a trip to the ancient Imperial coastal retreat of Kep. Yet, even there she finds signs of burgeoning development and commercialization.

Cambodian super model Lida Duch and her previous co-star Sokun Nhem are apparently quite popular from the blockbuster Khmer fantasy Sbek Kong, but local audiences will probably be a tad confused by Chen’s slow cinema-ish approach. Strictly speaking, it is true not a lot happens, but that is greatly reflective of real life. Indeed, Chen is very much interested in the pop songs, romance comic books, and karaoke bars that help the harried modern Cambodian get through the day. Frankly, that probably makes Dream Land considerably more interesting for international viewers on the outside looking in, rather than domestic patrons who are already immersed in this environment.

However, what really distinguishes the film is Duch’s remarkable performance. It is quietly reserved work, but powerfully vulnerable and emotionally brittle. She can say a lot with very little, so the camera just adores her. Frankly, it is hard to fairly judge Nhem as his near namesake, because what few scenes he has are so thoroughly stacked against him. Basically, he comes in and acts like a jerkheel, while Chen keeps him relegated to the far, out-of-focus corner of the frame. In contrast, Hak Kim is painfully empathic as the mutual friend so obviously carrying a torch for Lida.

Dream Land is not exactly a milestone of global cinema, but it is still exciting to see Cambodian film industry continue to rebuild itself following the almost complete destruction the country’s cinema heritage under the Communist insanity of the Khmer Rouge. Chen has already been a part of that effort, working as part of the camera crew on Davy Chou’s masterful Golden Slumbers. (Chou in turn served as an associate producer on Dream Land.) At this point, each Cambodian film is still important as another building block in that effort, but Chen’s film is also significant for bringing Duch international recognition. Despite the art house pacing, Dream Land has considerable merits. Recommended for sophisticated patrons, it screens tomorrow (2/8) and Tuesday (2/9), as part of this year’s Santa Barbara International Film Festival.