Film Review: Coalesce – Queer East Film Festival

Reviewed by Dave Cunningham

Writer and Director: Jessé Miceli

Phnom Penh is the economic, industrial, and cultural centre of Cambodia attracting tourists from many counties and investors from China. Coalesce, written and directed by Jessé Miceli, examines this thriving society from the viewpoint of people at its margins – aspiring towards, but struggling to achieve, the prosperity they witness.

In Coalesce three young men of varying ages from different backgrounds and circumstances try to make their way in the world.  The youngest, Songsa (Sek Songsa) is from a dirt-poor rural community. His age and introspective nature make him vulnerable to exploitation as he is compelled to sell clothes from a mobile tuk-tuk. Thy (Rom Rithy) is from a more suburban blue-collar background and regards himself as the least favoured of his father’s sons. His sexuality is ambivalent; sleeping with men and women but in the case of the former it is implied he is paid for the experience.  A desire to buy a motorcycle and enjoy the freedom it represents prompts him to work in a gay bar, dancing, or hustling patrons to buy drinks and exploiting his youthful body in other ways. The only character married with a family, Phearum (Eang Phearum ), spends most of his time in the bustling metropolis but, as a taxi driver with debts, does not have the time or money to enjoy its heady delights.

Director Miceli creates the giddy rush of a city expanding rapidly to the extent of creating confusion and anxiety. The alienation experienced by the characters is reflected in their restless lifestyles- they are constantly in motion either on motorcycles or in taxi cabs and home is not seen as a welcoming environment.

There is the strong sense of people on the outside looking in; particularly the sections featuring Eang Phearum who conveys clients, and even sex tourists to cultural and entertainment establishments. The spirit of colonialism flickers in the background as Chinese visitors tour properties and plots of land they wish to buy for investment.

The mood is understated; momentous decisions are taken as part of everyday life. Phearum’s wife is driven around with him on his route all day before gradually it becomes clear she is being taken to an abortionist.  Irony flickers through the movie – the painfully shy Songsa makes a connection with other people by way of death metal music.

The contrast between rural and city life is apparent. Scenes in the country are shot in daytime emphasising the wide-open spaces while the city is claustrophobic-a crowded neon-drenched maze of narrow streets and bars. Yet the bleak documentary style of the film ensures the lifestyles of the characters are not romanticised. The harsh poverty from which Songsa originates is apparent as preparing a meal involves brutally battering a chicken to death against a wall and dropping the body in the cooking pot.

Director Miceli takes a strictly neutral approach and does not judge the characters; they are seen as people whose decisions are shaped by very difficult circumstances. Phearum is propositioned by one of his clients and not seen as noble for refusing her advances just as Thy is not condemned for selling his body to a lonely customer. It is a merciless environment in which the characters are as likely to be exploited as be exploiters- a passing drunk attempts to take advantage of the vulnerable Songsa and Thy’s employment leaves him vulnerable to blackmail by his brother.

The tile, Coalesce, requires the lives of the characters eventually to collide which is the least satisfactory part of the movie. The effort to give an indication of the futures of the characters results in some clumsy contrivances. Typical of the unflinching attitude of the film, however, the prosperity experienced by Phearum and Thy is modest while the fate of the innocent Songsa is the bleakest – moving from a shy personality to a sullen angry teenager.

As the bleak approach taken in Coalesce arises from the circumstances of the characters the tone is authentic rather than depressing and allows for convincing glimmers of hope.

Coalesce is screening at the Queer East Film Festival on 19 May.

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