Film Review: Young Love (2019)

Young Love is the feature film debut of director Lomorpich Rithy. It follows the life of Kesor (Chansreyden Kong), a 15-year-old growing up in Phnom Penh with her grandmother. Over the course of the film she navigates all the highs and lows of teenage life, from learning to balance her friendships to learning to deal with the absence of her mother. But as the title suggests, what the film primarily explores are the complicated, incipient emotions that come with first love. As they say at the beginning of the film, “In short, love is a disaster”. Kesor is thus torn between the shy boy next door Rith (David Sophy Rong) and the dashing older student Veha (Socheat Chea), who can play the guitar and who has his hair tied back.

From the get go Young Love does not seem to have weightier themes in mind and seems perfectly content with being a fluffy high school comedy. To be fair, there’s nothing wrong with that. Tonally it reminded me of the current surge of silly teen movies being pumped out by Netflix, like the quintessential To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018) or the compelling social statement Tall Girl (2019). These are all films revolving around attractive teenagers facing minor problems and saucy romance stories, with maybe a few big twists thrown in. However, light-hearted high school movies always seem to sprout from the US so a Cambodian setting would seem like a refreshing change of pace. But that is where my main problem with Young Love lies: it never tries to differentiate or elevate itself from other high school comedies.

Watching the film felt like going down an uninspired checklist of cliches. Of course you have the shallow mean girls who pick on Kesor, albeit with updated lingo like “#prohokday #smelly #peasant”, which mocks her grandmother’s job selling prohok. Of course you have the mid-film turning point where Kesor is perceived to have “changed”, neglecting her friends as she chases Veha. And most egregiously you have the typical struggle of the protagonist not realising that the person she should be with was right next to her the whole time! There is a stunning superficiality to the script and I felt my patience as a viewer tested when the book another girl gives Rith to “see if he loves her” is Romeo and Juliet

My favourite teen comedies are always full of fun, memorable characters. Who can forget Jon Heder in Napoleon Dynamite (2004), or the hilarious Booksmart (2019) duo of Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever? Sometimes, memorable and well-developed characters can save an otherwise uninspired plot. Unfortunately every character in Young Love is extremely shallow and boring.

The worst offender is the central protagonist Kesor, who, by the end of the film, we know so little about and yet with whose perspective and struggles we are forced to align with simply because of a first-person voiceover. Near the beginning, in a scene where Kesor arrives in school, a film-specific song plays with lyrics like “Kesor where are you going, you’re so beautiful”. By the time the song ends you have heard the name Kesor repeated ad nauseam, to the point where Kesor no longer feels like a person but a symbol of a carefree teenage girl. This vague notion we have of her somehow never goes away even as the film progresses. The other characters are just as shallow, with Veha occupying the stereotypical role of the struggling artist whose parents will not support him. Do we get to know anything more about him? Nope, because his entire agency as a character revolves around his relationship with Kesor, as they exchange bland platitudes declaring their love. All of the actors do a serviceable job, but none really possesses the charm to elevate a weak script.

The only aspects of the film I found interesting almost seem incidental. As a film released in 2019, it seeks to capture the everyday life of a normal Cambodian teenger, and it does this by showing a modern reliance on social media. Social media in the film is not used to make any sweeping commentary; instead it seems entirely woven into the social fabric of Cambodia. Videos go viral, Rith and Veha bond over how to upload a YouTube video and Instagram is even used as a crucial plot point. As smartphones continue to become more widespread, especially across Southeast Asia, the casual way with which social media is approached is definitely indicative of a new normal in filmic depictions of contemporaneous times.

The film was shot by cinematographer Jeremiah Overman and there are some visually great moments. One that comes to mind is the opening one-shot take, where the camera glides going from one person to another to introduce characters, which I found quite inspiring. There are also some beautiful night-time shots of Phnom Penh, as well as wide shots showing off the lush greenery of Kampot, even if the location’s inclusion as a stop on a school trip feels bizarrely like an advertisement for the area.

As a film intended for a teenage audience, Rithy seems wholeheartedly open to using it to promote didactic moral messages about the nature of love, while also championing different social causes. There is one subplot shoehorned in where students and teachers stand up for a gay peer that is being bullied. It has no bearing on the plot and is handled inelegantly, but I can appreciate the message it attempts to bring across in a country where LGBTQ+ rights are still suppressed.

I find questioning the moral value of a film to usually be a futile endeavour that dismisses the intentions of the filmmaker. However, with regard to what the film attempts to teach a young audience about love, there is one shocking twist that, while logistically confusing, seems almost irresponsible. It paints one of the characters in an unfavourable light yet never truly shows any consequences for their actions. The message the film ultimately sends is that love is complicated, and that even if someone relentlessly gaslights you, manipulates you, curtails your personal agency and seeks to infantilise you for their own gain, if they had good intentions and were sincere then it does not matter. There is something unsettling about how Kesor’s attempts to reconcile with an absent mother are never shown or dealt with meaningfully. Instead, it is a mere conduit to explore her relationship with Rith.

The one ultimately positive thing I have taken away from Young Love, is a new perspective on Cambodia and its film industry. There is one moment of self awareness in the film where Kesor and Veha are in a cinema watching a film about another couple. In the film within the film, a young girl comments that things have changed since “Pol Pot’s regime”, referencing the continued spectre the Khmer Rouge regime casts on the country that Young Love does not explore.

In the modern landscape of Cambodia’s film industry, filmmakers have shown a continued obsession with exploring deep rooted traumas and the impact of war. These themes are especially prevalent in the horror genre and has gained widespread popularity in recent years. In a way there is something slightly transgressive about a film that perhaps seeks to subvert the stereotypical displays of war, violence and poverty that many have somewhat unfairly associated with the country. Instead, we are treated to a carefree 112-minute romantic comedy about privileged kids that deal with familiar, everyday problems, expanding a preconceived view of Cambodian cinema by breaking ground in an underrepresented genre. All in all, even if the film is not great, maybe a broadening of its usual subject matter is what the Cambodian film industry needs to evolve.


Written by Matthew Chan
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