Film Review: White Building | ប៊ូឌីញ ស (2021)


Despite the ugliness of loss, one can almost always find something beautiful about sorrow too. In its cruelties, the wandering mind draws upon the tropes of pain and conjures pleasures to accompany their actualisations, hypothetical and otherwise; grieving what has been lost, what shall be lost, what will be lost. There is beauty in the humanist tenacity that commonly shines through acute crises, in the generosity of spirit magnified by catastrophic failures, but there is also something darker looming on the edge—the beauty of the disastrous and terrible. In contemporary visual culture, we have disaster porn and epics of devastation: planes fall out of sky, ships sink beneath the surf, skyscrapers topples, mountain split open, spewing lava like the bile of a primal god. On a smaller scale, we have the mundane sufferings and banal traumas of dispossession and displacement, the everyday elegies with common refrains: poverties, deaths, and the minor malices that stack up to kill with a thousand cuts.


Beyond privations—physical, psychological, spiritual—though, the mechanism of loss is the clearest on temporal scales when placed in relation to history. As Walter Benjamin observed in Theses on the Philosophy of History, the political expediency of historicism, when the historiographical impulse aims to showcase the past as it is, or at least presumed to be, is potent and dangerous because it empathises with the victor to “invariably benefit[] the rulers.”1 As such, the nature of history as a construct should not be to affirm the conformational biases of extant power relations because it is “the subject of a structure whose site is not homogenous, empty time, but time filled by the now.”2 Reading Benjamin’s assertions from the perspective of loss, Eng and Kazanjian makes the case for how “mourning what remains of lost histories as well as histories of loss” is to initiate and maintain a porous relationship to history that is itself a creative process which is “animating history for future significations as well as alternate empathies.”3 Tracing the etymological roots of mourning, one finds longing next to anxiety, a jittery conscientiousness for what is to come, as current and imminent concerns slide down the slippery continuum of history.


How then to negotiate this tension between what was before and what soon will be? In White Building, Khmer filmmaker Kavich Neang’s debut feature, the difficult answer to this question runs through the drama like a spine, pulled taut by the burden of balancing the weights of an unresolved past and the inescapable future, as the residents of a once-iconic apartment complex in central Phnom Penn come to term with their inevitable evictions from the forces of foreign capital. Some resist, some capitulate, and one watch in silence, praying to the gods of the land for a miracle. He is Samnang (Piseth Chhun). His name means luck, but he is all out of it: his best friend, who he gazes at with a quiet longing, is skipping town; his house is getting torn down soon to make way for property speculations; his dreams of making it as one-third of a hip-hop dance crew is leaving with his friend; and his stoic diabetic father (Sithan Hout) has a deep cut on his big toe that he is staunchly refusing to go to the doctor for, abetted by tired wife, Nang’s mother (Sokha Uk), whose magical thinking translates the efficacy of a pack of over-the-counter paracetamol to the level of a medical appointment.


Tracing Nang’s tribulations as his life gradually unravels with the sort of pedestrian tragedy too commonplace to demand any response other than a resigned, continual struggle, White Building, so titled after the eponymous building which was once the crown jewel of Khmer architectural modernism along the Bassac river waterfront, is a sensitive examination of the immediate moments before displacement. Split over three chapters—Blessings, Spirit House, and Monsoon—the film opens with drones both visual and aural, contemplatively gliding over the top of the complex lengthwise as an ethereal score soars with an under-texture of electronic buzz and blends into the sounds of prayers. The story begins near the end, with the writing on the wall right next to flyers advertising movers and crude spray paints of floor area estimations. Doe-eyed Nang and sardonic best friend Ah Kha (Chinnaro Soem) are two-thirds of a dance crew with fellow neighbour Tol (Sovann Tho), together they practice in Nang’s place with Ah Kha’s choreography, hustling for pocket change at the occasional variety show to a lukewarm audience. Weaving through the Phnom Penh cityscape on a ramshackle scooter, the trio chats up fellow motorists and marvel at recent real estate developments in an idyllic if penurious life when Ah Kha drops a bomb: he is moving to France with family. There is no room to budge of course, and Nang’s dream of stardom on national TV dies in the womb.


With Ah Kha out of the picture and Tol busy with his girlfriend, Nang’s attention shifts to his family: his stubborn father, a former sculptor who tries his best to lead the ragtag residence of the White Building in their negotiation with the developer; his resigned mother, who tries her best to hold together what is about to fall apart; and his sister, who has since fled the family home to escape the overbearing expectation of two aging parents. In a terse, tense town hall, the residents argue over their collective fates, one-half recalls the brutality of the powerful when annoyed and wants to take the current offer and leave, the other contends with the impossibility of moving with what has been offered in the now sky-rocketing real estate market and wants to ask for more, while a lone voice asks for solidarity to remain and is shot down—everyone else remembers what happens to resistance when not buttressed by power.


It is hard to not pick up on the surging undercurrent of precarity and what it meant historically, in a country whose long road from the under the shadows of the past—a genocide that took out a good quarter of the then population, decades of stunted progress from a failed radical ideological experiment—is coinciding with a burgeoning economy buoyed by corruption and East Asian capital that is reshaping a landscape not quite healed yet from the traumas of before. This is a country finding its feet in real time as the youth realise that having dreams and being able to achieve them are not the same, while the aged contend with the reality that power works the same regardless of who holds it. A generational gap is apparent with Nang’s wide-eyed naïveté and his father’s lopsided frown and cynicism. However, neither is better than the other, instead we witness the duumvirate of obstinacy and resilience that undergirds life in uncertainty, and the curious reversals between two generations whose experiences of the past—and the future—draw from the logic of the contexts of their definition.


Capturing the essential spirit of not just the place (The White Building was notable as a commune for artists and artisan before the genocide, and many returned afterwards, and it shows in the residential demographics.) but also of the times, director Kavich deals an adept hand that knows the best form of reproach is noiseless, not because there is nothing to be said or left to say, but because talking takes up the energy that could be better used for action, for the ever after that follows a foregone conclusion. By eschewing the vitriol of last-stands and demonstrations—think Sonia Braga in Brazilian filmmaker Kleber Mendonça Filho's 2016 drama Aquarius as the fiery, privileged, unyielding homeowner ClaraKavich takes the path less seen but more travelled, rolling with the punches, but always with an eye on the prize: to live and dream another day. Here, Kavich notes the tenderness of hope and its persistence with a meticulous, sensitive gaze that strips away the artifice of anger to plot a path to a tomorrow that will surely be better than today. An unsentimental acknowledgement of history that is no less savvy about the toll the future exerts on the present, the demolished White Building leaves behind an aphorism in the memory of its name: that to find a way forward is to be building, each brick a careful step in life’s choreography.


References:

  1. Benjamin, W. (1968). Illuminations. Schocken Books. 
  2. ibid.
  3. Eng, D. L., & Kazanjian, D. (Eds.). (2003). Loss: The Politics of Mourning. University of California Press. 


- Alfonse Chiu


White Building premiered at the 78th Venice Film Festival in the Orizzonti section as the first official Cambodian selection. Lead actor Piseth Chhun won the Orizzonti Award for Best Actor.

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