Film Review: Last Night I Saw You Smiling (2019)

Constructed a decade after Cambodia’s independence, the Municipal Apartments, known more fittingly as the White Building, became one of the most iconic works of New Khmer architecture in Phnom Penh. The housing block witnessed everything from the Cambodian Genocide, the defeat of the Khmer Rouge, the nation’s Golden Age, to the modern capitalist world which eventually lead to its demise—what was once a brilliant white symbol of modernism became a grey, poverty-stricken, dilapidated complex on the verge of destruction.

In May 2017, after years of neglect, the complex faced demolition and replacement by a high-rise mixed-use development after a Japanese company bought the property. With the support of the Cambodian government, nearly 500 families were scheduled to be displaced with little compensation to rebuild the lives they had grown within these walls.

Director Kavich Neang was raised in the White Building, and despite its crumbling image, reflects fondly on his memories while empathising with the residents who have called it home for decades. Learning of its impending destruction, he returns to document the final days of tenants’ residency there as they bid farewell for a final time, including his own family’s departure from his childhood home.

Switching between static shots of families packing up stacks of dusty belongings and neighbours crowding around a small television, the film documents the mundane aspects of daily life which simultaneously evoke a sense of emptiness and community. Peering into each apartment and catching a glimpse at the run-down, flaking walls filled with heaps of miscellaneous belongings, the viewer’s vantage point is always one that is intimate; at points, it felt almost invasive. Fixed, framed shots, complemented by limited dialogue, simulate the feeling of looking through an actual window into people’s lives as they go through one of the most difficult process of uprooting a life they built.
Emptiness permeates the film as we glance down dark hallways, stare at a singular fluttering cloth, watch kids meander down a corridor littered with trash, or listen to a woman sing in vacant room. The visuals more than document the condition of the building, but I wonder if the film has relied so heavily on these static shots that they have come to reflect the stagnancy of the film. Calm and relaxing, these visuals are beautiful, yet seem never-ending as we are forced to watch with the apparent intention of getting us to empathise with the resident’s situation. Limited dialogue leave us to interpret the feelings or actions that play out before us but is not sufficient as outsiders to completely grasp the weight of what they are feeling. The ending sequence of boarded up apartments and crumbling rubble as the building is demolished evokes a sense of sadness yet the emotional connection as a viewer is not present.

Comprising evocative shots, and sprinkled with a couple of heart wrenching back-and-forths, the film is beautifully shot but seemed as though only those with personal ties could entirely relate to it. The conclusion seemed to represent an eventuality where the viewer could only grasp the gravity of the situation after the building is gone.

- Lana Allen
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