‘White Building’ Review: Coming of Age in Cambodia

Kavich Neang’s lush feature tells a largely autobiographical tale of growing up in a building whose often painful history is a microcosm of his country’s.

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By Austin Considine

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The title of Kavich Neang’s richly observed feature, “White Building,” is, first of all, an exaggeration: The dilapidated apartment bloc it describes is so chipped and black with soot that it’s barely white; indeed, it is so falling apart that it’s barely a building.

But for Samnang (Piseth Chhun), the young protagonist of this sensitive and largely autobiographical coming-of-age portrayal, it is home, as the real-life White Building it is based on was for Neang.

Located in central Phnom Penh, the building is an apt symbol of the often excruciating changes Cambodia has endured over the last 60 years. It was built in the 1960s to house civil servants, then emptied during the Khmer Rouge’s forced relocations of the 1970s. In the ’80s, it became home to working class people like Samnang’s diabetic father (Sithan Hout), who, like Neang’s, is a sculptor. Now its inhabitants are being pushed to take a lousy deal so it can be demolished for new development, in a city they can no longer afford.

Unlike his parents, Samnang has no memories of the Khmer Rouge. He and his friends grew up with cellphones and hip-hop, and they dream of becoming a famous dance troupe. They want what other boys of their generation want: girlfriends, Nikes, a chance to prove themselves.

Neang excels at that Tarkovskian trick of rendering the small details of decay — a cracked tile, a leaking ceiling — with such lived-in precision that they feel somehow specific and surreal at once; like the title, images strain their own semantic boundaries. The film’s loose plotting and secondary character development can leave a few too many hanging threads, but its sense of place is so palpable you can almost smell the smoky city markets, the sweat, the hormones.

White Building
Not rated. In Khmer, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes. In theaters.

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