Adieu to the White Building: Cambodia’s House of Desires

Shreya Bhowmik

A still from the movie that shows the White Building.

Samnang dreams of dancing hip-hop with his two other friends. They go around Phnom Penh in an old scooty, dancing in local restaurants and collecting money for some skewers and cheap alcohol. Around him, his world is changing though. His home, the iconic White Building, is on the verge of demolition. One of the trio leaves for France with his family. The other has a steady girlfriend. Nang himself becomes busy looking after his diabetic father. When he hangs out with his friends, they discuss packing, moving out, meeting with dealers.

And then he and his friends are dancing in the bright lights of “Cambodia’s Next Superstar”. The somber music feels like all his dreams are dying a slow death, ready to be packed and moved to a subterranean chamber of sleep. His desire to win the competition slowly loses its way amidst the meandering streets of the city. Eerie nightmares of his father dressed in a suit and walking down the lonely corridors replace them.

The first shot of the building.

The opening shot glides over the eponymous building. We look down like we are gods watching our own creation, our toys. This vast, scarred apartment is familiar to me because I have seen plenty of such buildings while traveling to my university. This is also Naeng, the director’s childhood home. Bearing the looks of an abandoned continent, each house seems the same; noises drifting out of open windows, clothes on lines and a bare skeletal building still standing tall. There’s still life inside them. There’s still a Nang inside who desires to become a dancer. He prays in a homemade makeshift altar; promising his gods “chicken and seven types of fruit” so that they win the flashy dance competition. It is so mundane that it is sad.

Home and the World

The White Building is close to the center of the city. Previously known as Municipal Apartments, the tenants fled in 1970 when the genocide was ongoing. The defeat of Khmer Rouge brought them back. All its residents are artists and government workers. Nang’s father was a sculptor who also worked for the Ministry of Culture. Now, he mediates between the broker and the residents, fighting over compensation and muddy water. The black hole in the roof through which water leaks looks eerily like the gangrenous toe that oozes pus. And like the house is lost, so is his leg. The great march of time won’t care that much for history or people now, will it?

The gangrene on the ceiling.

It is quite easy to understand why the Chinese auteur Jia Zhangke would co-produce it. Both capture vividly a rapidly disappearing way of life. White Building is not a movie where a hero steps up or about a resilient community winning the uphill battle. The narrative pulls back to show the decrepit building from different angles. The characters speak more in pauses and silences as they speak in words.

Though the movie lays bare the ugly underbelly of rapid urbanization, there are no references to prostitution or drugs that were associated with the building in its last days. Rather, what we see is the picture of a close-knit community that has developed over the years. Though there is no agreement over the compensation price, people huddle when one of them suddenly collapses due to ill-health. When evening settles around, people are seen out and about in the corridors. As the camera slowly walks us through the labyrinthine maze, both from the outside and the inside, we see how interconnected this microcosm is. It may be cattle class for the artists and government servants, but it is familiar.

Naeng’s home, Nang’s home

This is the director Kavich Naeng’s first feature movie. For him, it is more than an iconic building that is representative of the New Khmer Architecture, heralding the “golden age of Cambodian Architecture”. It was his home for more than two decades. Naeng recollects how it housed an eclectic mix of people. One could hear Cambodian dance music as well as find circus performances. He recollects how his mother would get groceries from neighbours that lived “along the corridor”. His protagonist finds camaraderie amidst challenges that face every eighteen-year-old. His desires find expression in dance rehearsals in their rooms and talks over kissing girls.

Casual camaradarie

The White Building is finally demolished. As people move out, his family also gets scattered. His parents move to the countryside while he and his sister choose the city. But physical spaces are rarely so fragile. It remains in the videos that Nang shows his father. It also persists when a movie is made to preserve its memories for generations to come. It is beyond the capacity of a bulldozer to raze it to the ground.

Shreya Bhowmik currently resides in Kolkata and freelances as a content writer with various organisations.

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