There is an eerie, otherworldly beauty to the opening shot of Kavich Neang’s “White Building.” Accompanied by the pressure-cooker whine that introduces the more uncanny sections of Jean-Charles Bastion’s score, a drone camera, steady as though it were mounted on tracks in the sky, drifts over the eponymous structure, looking down. Even just the rooftop of this vast, scabbed Phnom Penh apartment complex seems to have a thousand stories to tell — it’s perhaps little wonder that Neang’s melancholic, perplexed, slightly ponderous feature debut gets a little lost navigating them.
Seen from this angle, the building — Neang’s childhood home, which recurred in his shorts and documentaries, and of which he amassed quite a bit of footage before it was demolished in 2017 — looks like an intricately scruffy map of an abandoned continent. It’s crazy-paved in cracked concrete and crisscrossed with electrical wires, with drifts of sooty trash gathering in its corners and dirty vents staring into dangerously haphazard fuse boxes, and it is not immediately clear if anyone still lives inside. But as soon as we see it from the side, the laundry flapping cheerfully from the railings, incongruously brightly painted doors standing out against the crumbling brickwork and fissured cement, it’s plain that the building is teeming with life and, at least in the case of Nang (Horizons best actor winner Piseth Chhun), with dreams.
Down one of its long corridors, in one of its hundreds of apartments, Nang prays at a homemade altar and vows that if he wins the flashy dance competition he’s training for with his troupe (really just his two best friends delivering bouncy, boy band-ish routines), he will offer up “a chicken and seven types of fruit.” In its lively, engaging first third, Neang’s film trails Nang around Phnom Penh’s neon nighttime, chasing girls and earning a little money dancing with his squad mates Tol (Sovann Tho) and Kanha (Jany Min).
But at home with his resigned mother (Sokha Uk) and diabetic father (Sithan Hout), the prospects are not so upbeat. The residents of the building — a mixture of low-income casual workers, artists and ex-civil servants — have been informed that the structure is to be torn down. According to the size of their units, they have been offered a meager sum per square meter as compensation. Nang’s dad, the spokesman for an unofficial residents association, chairs meetings that get increasingly fractious, divided between those who want to hold out for a better offer and those who want to take the money and run — meetings held outside on the rooftop, with a view across the urban skyline and its many cranes.
Meanwhile, the dilapidated building is rotting around their ears. As Nang’s dreams of dance fame start to recede — Tol leaves the country and Kanha couples up — leaks spring from the stained ceilings and patches of mold flourish in the unkempt plasterwork. At the same time, in a somewhat obvious parallel, Nang’s father’s toe begins to blacken with gangrene that threatens to creep up his leg. He refuses to go to the hospital, preferring instead to trust in folk remedies made of honey and household spices.
It’s a shame that as the demolition clock ticks louder, the pace of the film — never exactly breakneck — slows paradoxically down. The action slackens, and even Douglas Seok’s reliably handsome camerawork can only do so much to keep us invested in such passive protagonists. Both Nang and his father, though often on opposite sides of an argument, seem paralyzed by the oncoming disruption to their lives. One brooding composition silhouettes them against the tatty textures of an old mosquito net that glows orange in the evening light — it makes them seem trapped in amber. Nang’s dreams of being “Cambodia’s Next Superstar!” dissipate, replaced by vaguely sinister visions of his father, uncharacteristically wearing a suit, walking down the ruined, deserted hallways of the White Building. A sense of inevitability pervades the drama, making it heavy and drowsy.
It’s clear what attracted Chinese powerhouse Jia Zhangke to come aboard Neang’s promising, sympathetic but underpowered debut as a co-producer. In dealing with gentrification in an Asian metropolis that is undergoing rapid development no matter the human cost, the film speaks to many of Jia’s prevailing concerns. But despite how close the subject evidently is to Neang’s heart, his film is most compelling when it shifts up a gear, when we watch Nang rehearse with Tol and Kanha, or see the three of them weaving through the nighttime traffic piled onto a scooter, batting flirtatious repartee with three girls perched on a chugging moped. “White Building” is a slow-cinema eulogy for Phnom Penh’s recent past, but it’s in its livelier moments that Neang lays claim to the Cambodian art-house future.