Film Review: White Building – London Film Festival 2021

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Writers: Kavich Neang and Daniel Mattes

Director: Kavich Neang

Showing within the First Feature Competition, Kavich Neang and Daniel Mattes’ movie White Building explores the very tangible and deep-rooted association with place and its strong bonds of home and community. Based in a real location in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, the White Building was the home of government workers on low incomes before its demolition in 2017, but Neang, previously a documentary-maker, demonstrates the cost of development for those who lived there.

Aspiring dancer Samnang loves living in the very heart of the city, spending his time practicing routines with his friends and driving around the restaurants busking to buy food. When the local authorities decide to demolish his home, Samnang’s father as Chief tenant tries to represent the views of the community but, with his own health problems, the fight against progress is harder than ever.

Neang and Mattes have created a slow burn 90-minute story about the problems and pressures of gentrification for long-term residents of rundown apartments that no longer fit the profile of a transforming city centre. By offering so little to the inhabitants of the White Building, the writers suggest the unscrupulous nature of construction firms and the inability to halt or influence decisions that have already been made.

Yet, Neang and Mattes have considerable empathy for those being left behind and forcibly evicted from the place they know, having given service to the government in various roles throughout their time in the block. There is a sense of an era ending and there is considerable potency in the large panning and tracking shots that take in the decrepitude of the structure, which is far from the brilliant white it must once have been, while showing the coloured washing lines and sunny rooftops that mark out the daily life and experience for generations of Cambodian city dwellers.

There are touches of Andrea Arnold in some of the visual phrasing with that same interest in the almost poetic contrast of nature in urban environments captured well in Douglas Seok’s cinematography, as well as a focus on the joys found within low-income communities where individuals look to dance and artistic expression as a way to escape from or graduate beyond their surroundings.

As the story switches gear to focus on Samnang’s father (Hout Sithorn) and his health issues, the stubbornness and refusal to listen to professional advice makes less sense given his role in negotiating terms with the builders. This attempt to show the persistence of traditional cures, suspicions about professional occupations and the continued belief in fate needs further explanation as it loses sight of the consequences for protagonist Samnang.

Piseth Chhun gives the lead an interesting division between feeling the connections to home and family that are expected of him and fantasising about a different future. Like Mia in Fish Tank, Samnang has a performer’s confidence that is hampered by his environment and while he sets that aside to support his parents, Chhun maintains a momentum in Samnang that will take him to where he belongs.

An interesting first feature that looks backwards as well as forwards, White Building interestingly combines the demolition of a real place with the fictionalised story of its occupants – an eyesore to many and well past its best, yet to Samnang and his community the White Building was still their home.

White Building is screening at the London Film Festival.

The Reviews Hub Score:

Interesting first feature

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The Reviews Hub Film Team is under the editorship of Maryam Philpott.

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