This soulful, heavy hearted drama tells a tale of gentrification and community displacement in Cambodia. It’s a fictional story about the real-life White Building, an iconic modernist apartment block built in 1963 in the centre of Phnom Penh and demolished in 2017. The film’s director, Kavich Neang, has a personal connection: he grew up in the White Building and opens his film with an extraordinary drone shot that floats above the building’s roof. From this angle the mosaic of chipped tiles and rusted corrugated sheets looks strangely beautiful: a metaphor perhaps for the White Building itself, which is crumbling and not fit for habitation, but still home to a vibrant diverse community, everyone happily jostling in the corridors.
Neang’s story is about a boy’s coming of age as his family is evicted. Piseth Chhun gives a sensitive performance as Nang, who at the start of the movie, bleached streaks in his hair, dreams of boyband-style fame with his hip-hop dance squad, which is basically him and two mates. He lives with his mum and sculptor dad in the building, whose residents are being pushed out so property developers can move in. The miserably low payoff will force most of them out of the city, where house prices are skyrocketing.
The film follows Nang as he matures from boy to man. His dad is spokesman for the tenants’ association, and there are bad-tempered meetings about whether to accept the eviction deal. Then the building’s water supply is switched off. Worryingly, Nang’s dad has an infected big toe, which appears to be gangrenous, a complication of diabetes; the blackening spreads like the mould on the apartment’s ceiling.
This is a gentle-going watch, understated – underpowered even – and sometimes a little drowsy. Still, it has real sensitivity and insight into the transition to adulthood, as gradually it dawns on Nang that his parents don’t have all the answers.