Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Mar 09, 2017 7:11 pm 
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A dreamy slow epic coming-of-age of a country boy in Pnom Penh

Diamond Island is a Cambodian coming-of-age film focused on a young man from the country who comes to a place outside Pnom Penh to work in construction on the titular big new luxury housing development. Buddies, girls, the appearance of his lost older brother figure. A very visual film, full of night lights, fluorescent neon-pastel colors, and pretty faces: considerable formal beauty, a hypnotic mood. Though it can feel a bit static at times, almost like Kabuki theater, this film features what is at once a very distinctive and personal style and moments that may bring to mind Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Jia Zhang-ke. Davy Chou, the filmmaker, is Cambodian-French, and the production has heavy French involvement.

The protagonist is Bora (Sobon Nuon), a handsome young guy from the provinces who says goodbye to his sick mother and comes to work on a new overblown resort center called Diamond Island. He falls in with three other guys including the punkish Dy (Mean Korn). Near the site are some girls, including the perfectly pretty Aza (Madez Chhem), who takes an interest in him, though he holds back at first.

Sometimes conversations are hieratic and formal, with two characters standing at some distance and addressing each other slowly, underlining the film's intentionally deliberate pace and sometimes dreamlike feel (and there are dreams, too), perhaps also to show their subservience to the encroaching urban landscape. This use of space is the case when Bora's older brother Solei (Cheanick Nov) mysteriously appears, standing in the semi-darkness. They have not met for five years and Solei is out of touch with their family. Solei has long hair tied back and is dressed in black and is taller and has a nice motorcycle, money, and his own older posse of cooler, more distant guys and their girls and bikes. His wealth is due to his American "sponsor," presumably gay lover, though this is never explained, presumably not understood by the provincial, naive Bora. Boys and girls barely even kiss, and much of the action takes place outdoors, and at night, in glowing, romantic light. Beautiful glowing urban landscapes show partly unfinished buildings.

This film is all about the images and the dreamlike, hypnotic movement of the leisurely action. One of the key events is a non-event: the news that Solei's "sponsor" will not be taking them to America, and that Solei will not keep his promise of seeing their mother again. It is all sad and frustrating except that feelings are muted too, sorrow of loss reduced to a funeral seen from a distance. A slight flash-forward shows Bora doing well working in a non-labor job and looking "cool," as one of his work site pals, now a security guard, insists.

The mincing sound of Cambodian and Thai speech and the delicacy of the young men makes one expect the handsome Bora, on whose face the camera is wont to dwell, to be part of a gay coming-of-age story, a possibility that Solei's "sponsor" hints of too. But this is averted, if it was ever there. No, Bora is ostensibly straight, but sexuality is refined and neutralized in this aestheticized world.

Jordan Minzer's Hollywood Reporter reivew sees links with Satyajit Ray’s Aparajito (for the country-to-city plot) and Tsai Ming-liang's Rebels of the Neon God, the latter obviously faster paced and more intimate in feel. He connects images of the motorcycle riders in Rebels with some beautiful shots of boys on their bikes at night seen from above here. Solei's bike has blue lights on it that glow. Minzer notes that DP Thomas Favel (Gaz de France), whose importance to Chou might be compared to that of Christopher Doyle to early Wong Kar-wai, helps the filmmaker develop "a rich palette of blues and yellows,contrasting the dusty [yellow] world of condo construction with the candy-colored [blue and pink] nightclubs and amusement parks that Bora frequents as he emerges into adulthood."

Catherine Bray in her Variety review naturally talks about the visuals too, noting the color grading pushes some scenes, particularly of a fairground, to "wildly saturated fluorescence." She also notes an original stylized aspect to the sound, so that in a nightclub "noise and music" are "mixed low and the dialogue delivered in a whisper, a counterintuitive effect given the typical club-scene reality of having to shout at people only a few inches away."

Not everything is successful, and the non-professional actors sometimes seem clumsy. But Chou sets a certain standard for stylishness in such a films. This is film as aesthetic ritual. Even as the young men and construction site action has a vérité naturalism, it is often stilled to beautiful static tableaux.

Diamond Island, 101 mins., debuted at Cannes Critics Week. It opened in French cinemas 28 Dec. 2016 and received enthusiastic reviews (AlloCiné press rating 3.8/5 based on 24 reviews). Screened for this review as part of the 2017 FSLC-MoMA New Directors/New Films series.

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