Review: White Building

Written and directed by Kavich Neang, co-written by Daniel Mattes, 20-year-old Samnang faces the demolition of his lifelong home in Phnom Penh and the pressures from family, friends, and neighbours which arise and intersect in this moment of sudden change. Starring: Piseth Chhun, Jany Min, Chinnaro Soem, Tho Sovann, Hout Sithorn and Ok Sokha.

Before you dive in, a quick IMDB search will reveal an interesting fact about White Building, that it is a dramatisation of Kavich Neang’s own experience as documented in his last feature, Last Night I Saw You Smiling with touches from his short New Land Broken Road. It’s an intensely personal connection to not only document a pivotal moment in your life but also be the person to adapt it into a drama. It’s a connection that pays off as this is a story of overwhelming sadness and hurtful pride. Its opening almost leads you to believe you’re in for something completely different, filled with the recklessness of youth and misguided adventures but that’s far from the real journey of this film. It’s a portrait of poverty, family and denial, told with an immensely grounded, earnest tone. A lot of its raw charm comes from the creation of Samnang (Piseth Chhun), a rare character in the landscape of young adult men, who captures both a youthful spirit and a maturity with sensitivity, open emotion and a sensible perspective.

While Kavich Neang’s direction captures the humble, despairing atmosphere extremely well, it’s his use of colour which stands out. It balances a heavy dose of realism with a distinctive personality and a youthfulness. It’s a blend which slowly works its way under your skin, even at times becoming difficult to watch. However Neang’s shot choices and angles aren’t as consistent as the overall style. At times it feels clumsy, they don’t come across as an intentionally obscure angles, rather not thought through. It doesn’t affect the overall quality of the direction though thankfully as they’re sporadic.

Piseth Chhun brings a sincere sympathy to lead the way as Samnang in White Building, he’s easy to watch and holds your attention throughout. His performance is a great example of the entire film’s themes, he embodies the sadness, nostalgia, dedication, loyalty and modesty. There are two sides to his performance, firstly that of his youth, time spent with his friends, played by Chinnaro Some and Tho Sovann. Secondly, the caring, responsible side with his family, trying to respect the prideful wishes of his father (Hout Sithorn) and mother (Ok Sokha). The battle for Samnang to push them towards the right choices for their health in spite of their money concerns is difficult to watch, a harrowing decision they simply shouldn’t have to make.

White Building is a moving portrait of a family being forced from their home, and a son trying to do the best by his family. It builds itself around the character of Samnang, the piece that holds everything together through his thoughtful creation and a great performance from Piseth Chhun which is relatable and sweet. It’s well written and directed, other than a few stray shots and a slightly meandering pace. Kavich Neang uses both his personal and filmmaking experience to create something incredibly personal and heartfelt.

Verdict: ✯✯✯½ | 7/10

Reviewed as part of London Film Festival 2021

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