Pingyao 2021 review: White Building (Kavich Neang)

“We see the characters’ souls torn between their jungle surroundings that seem timeless, and the memories of their past lives in the city, which is reshaped over and over by construction machines.”

Gentrification, and the destruction of people’s homes that comes with it, has recently become a topic tackled by films from all continents. In the US, the last instalment in the Candyman series has this issue at the core of its story (thirty years later, how does the fact that the original movie’s neighbourhood has been gentrified alter the aspects of this popular horror tale?). In France, the movie Gagarine portrays the mental breakdown of a teenager when the housing projects building he spent his whole life in is due to be torn down. Set in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, White Building has a similar premise. Twenty-year-old Samnang lives with his parents in a large tenement building (which really existed, and gives its name to the film) located in the heart of the city, which the government decides to demolish on the pretense that it is run-down and unfit to live in. Yet its true motives are to pursue the development of a brand new district full of shiny skyscrapers, such as the ones we can already see lurking in the background.

Each of the many apartments of the White Building contains life stories worthy of being told. The one chosen by Kavich Neang (for his first feature film, following several short films and documentaries) is mainly based on elements from his own experiences during the years spent in this building with his parents. He mixes these memories with another, more fictional idea, about a group of young dancers (Samnang and his two best friends) dreaming of success and stardom. Still, these two halves of a story do not add up to a fully convincing and touching whole, as Neang develops a little bit of one, then a little bit of the other, thus not taking either of them far enough. The documentary part of the film is much more convincing. It treats the building as a character of its own, living and dying: the opening and closing scenes are respectively an aerial travelling shot over the White Building in all its majesty, and images of bulldozers destroying it.

Another strong figure is the group of tenants as a whole, here seen buzzing in the lengthy hallways like a hive, there trying to defend their right to stay. Indeed the indemnity offered by the government for leaving the building is generous only in appearance: gentrification triggers an increase in the cost of living in the city, pushing previous inhabitants to the suburbs or back to the countryside. The latter is what eventually happens to Samnang and his family, leading to an epilogue similar in spirit to the cinema of Apichatpong Weerasethakul (while the rest of the movie, with its urban setting, is closer to the films of Davy Chou or Jia Zhangke, who both serve as producers on White Building). It is especially Cemetery of Splendour that comes to mind, as we see the characters’ souls torn between their jungle surroundings that seem timeless, and the memories of their past lives in the city, which is reshaped over and over by construction machines.

White Building (Kavich Neang)