Review: New Land Broken Road (2019) @ Thai Short Film & Video Festival

With an average urban spatial expansion rate of 4.3% a year, Cambodia has become one of the most rapidly developing countries in Southeast Asia. The country’s capital, Phnom Penh, has seen significant urban development over the past decade. However, the rate at which residential areas are demolished and redeveloped has, for a large part, been unaccounted for. 

This rapid loss of space has left many Cambodians displaced. Having seen Last Night I saw you Smiling and now, New Land Broken Road, it’s clear that this issue is the prerequisite for the works of Cambodian writer director Neang Kavich.

Starting out in Music and Dance, Neang ventured into filmmaking, beginning with his first short film, A Scale Boy, in 2010. He made it as part of a documentary workshop led by renown Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh. Panh would go on to produce Neang’s 2013 mid-length documentary film Where I Go. 

Last year, his short film, New Land Broken Road, was released as part of a Southeast Asian omnibus which premiered in Singapore. This month, it is being screened at the Thai Short Film and Video Festival, as part of the Astro A-List programme.

Also this year, Neang’s released his first feature length documentary, Last Night I saw you Smiling. It was screened at the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR), and at the Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF) last month. The documentary explored the grief and sense of loss that came with the ongoing urban development in Phnom Penh, Neang’s home city. These themes of displacement and urban loss seem to be a common thread in Neang’s work. 

New Land Broken Road shares many of the same ideas. Although, its fictional narrative granted it greater liberty in expressing Neang’s concern over urban development. Watching it now, I find it a fascinating precursor to Neang’s feature documentary.

In New Land Broken Road, Neang cast his light on Cambodia’s youth, focusing on a group of three young hip-hop dancers as they contemplate their place in a rapidly changing cityscape. Consequently, the three friends find themselves in front of a billboard advertising an upcoming housing estate. The image on the billboard boasts multi-storey homes with a picturesque exterior. Interestingly, this facade provides the backdrop for the rest of the film. 

Two of the three, Pasith and Thy, discuss their hopes for the future as the impeccable image looms behind them. While the pair remain to get their motorbike running, Nick ventures into the night in search of a lost iPhone –– possibly scavenging for the remains of a past long gone. Armed with a flashlight, he treks across the plains, revealing an endless skyline littered with lights; his own lost amongst them.

Later, Piseth and Thy meet Leakhena, a young street vendor. Her cart boasts garish LED lights that bathe the surroundings in red. Piseth seems immediately drawn to the cart and its owner. They quickly bridge a connection in the midst of a city they feel increasingly disconnected from. Even their present surroundings speak of this disconnect. The hustle and bustle of Phnom Penh twinkle like twilights in the distance. To Piseth’s surprise, Leakhena claims to sell her snacks along these very outskirts. Unsurprisingly though, she complains about not earning enough.

Each of them are struggling to keep up with the times. Piseth and Thy express their doubts over dancing for a living, while Leakhena engages Piseth in a fruitless conversation about selling a “trendy” alternative. They belong to Cambodia’s new generation of youth, and yet, they are quickly becoming relics of the present.

Neang has previously lamented about how Cambodia has undergone such rapid change over the last few decades. Evidently, his characters in New Land Broken Road share this concern. Perhaps the film’s most vocal expression of this concern occurs when Piseth flicks a switch on the cart, changing its LEDs from a radiant red to a sickly green. As though on cue, a hum of thunder reverberates around them as they look to the sky in apprehension.

With a film as perplexing as this, it’s often difficult to determine if every creative decision is a happy accident, or a stroke of true genius. Perhaps the answers lie in the film’s enigmatic title. Perhaps “New Land” refers to spatial expansion as a result of urban development, and perhaps “Broken road” refers to the path of destruction left in its wake. Regardless, Neang has painted an intimate portrait of marginalised Cambodian youth coping with change.

Lastly, I wanted to highlight how the film opens with a psychedelic dance number, and closes with a more bittersweet one. Dance clearly plays a key role here. Their conversations are even punctuated by brief dance routines. Although it seems to bear little relevance to the plot, the youthful vigour the characters carry in their dance is a poignant reminder that life goes on, even in the face of rapid progress.

Review by Charlie Chua

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