BFI #LFF 2021: White Building (BODENG SAR) Film Review

Piseth Chhun in WHITE BUILDING (2021)

Piseth Chhun in WHITE BUILDING (2021). © Anti-Archive / Apsara Films

Kavich Neang’s returns to the big screen with his fictional debut WHITE BUILDING, a slow-cinema eulogy about Cambodia’s present and recent past

3.5 out of 5 stars

Following his acclaimed documentary LAST NIGHT I SAW YOU SMILING, Kavich Neang’s returns to the big screen with his fictional debut WHITE BUILDING, a slow-cinema eulogy about Cambodia’s present and recent past.

20-year-old Samnang (Piseth Chhun) lives with his family in the majestic White Building – a prominent apartment block and cultural landmark of the Cambodian capital. Samnang (Nang) and his friends Tol (Sovann Tho) and Kanha (Jany Min) dream of being famous dancers, but their lives are suddenly shattered by the news of their home’s impending demolition to make way for a new development. Things are made even worse when, fighting against the inevitable, Nang’s father develops a mysterious illness.

Writers Neang and Daniel Mattes create a slow burn about gentrification with WHITE BUILDING, highlighting the rapid development of this fast-changing city, no matter the human cost. This is a deeply personal, shape-shifting piece of work from the promising Cambodian director, whose parents really lived in the White Building in Phnom Penh until 2017.

Piseth Chhun, Chinnaro Soem, and Sovann Tho in WHITE BUILDING (2021)

Piseth Chhun, Chinnaro Soem & Sovann Tho in WHITE BUILDING. © Anti-Archive / Apsara Films

Visually, there’s some inventive storytelling here, with long panning and tracking shots drifting over the eponymous structure, looking down at the building and its residents. Neang shoots in an abstract, lyrical style to deliver an eerie, otherworldly beauty. He experiments with brooding composition silhouettes and a minimalist fantasy sequence in which Nang’s dreams of being “Cambodia’s Next Superstar” are replaced by a sinister dream sequence of his father walking down the ruined, deserted hallways of the White Building.

There are some subdued, naturalistic performances from the cast, particularly from Piseth Chhun as Nang, the young man whose hopes and dreams for the future disintegrates as he finds the stable environment he has always called home is on shaky ground.

His character is in stark contrast to Hout Sithan as Nang’s diabetic father, who remains stubbornly tied to tradition, unwilling to compromise on the sale of the building, the medical treatment he must receive to treat his diabetes, or even a future away from the city.

Piseth Chhun and Hout Sithorn in WHITE BUILDING (2021)

Piseth Chhun and Hout Sithorn in WHITE BUILDING (2021). © Anti-Archive / Apsara Films

Yet, there are times when WHITE BUILDING’s slow narrative flow hinders Neang’s melancholic feature. Through a direction of observation, Neang allows the story’s development to take its natural evolution but, as a result, gets a little lost navigating them. As the demolition clock ticks louder, the pace of the film – which is already ponderous – slows down even further, and the sense of inevitability makes the 90-minute runtime feel heavy and drowsy.

That said, this is a remarkably nuanced and emotionally engaging film about the fast-changing city and one that pays homage to the enduring memory of the iconic White Building.

WHITE BUILDING screens at the BFI London Film Festival on 8 October 2021.