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Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

The Space of/for Memory: ”Last Night I Saw You Smiling”

By Alfonse Chiu
(2,078 words, 7-minute read)

Every space tells a story: the empty prison cell speaks of redemptions, of wrongs that were righted, and to the cynical, more earthly, minds, of miscarriages of justice, and the irrevocability of tragedies and the people who made them; the crowded hospital ward hums, sometimes a baleful tune when a heart attack becomes a full-body scan becomes something decidedly terminal, and sometimes a bright chime when a newborn takes their first breaths and screams to announce their entry into this world; and tales of homes, houses, and hauntings have infested almost every definition and genre of fiction and non-fiction known to mankind: killing, nourishing, obscuring, stagnating, etc.

Almost always, the space is tangible, is physical—a place, if you will, when pinned against definitions. Writing in the 1970s, geographer Yi-Fu Tuan notes that “[w]hat begins as undifferentiated space becomes place as we get to know it better and endow it with value.”[1] For Tuan, a space is a location that goes unmarked and represents a fundamental abstraction, but also potential for development, while a place is a space that is meaningful, guided by conversance and functions that are sometimes biological—“for food, water, rest, and procreation,”—but frequently psychological, constituted by an amalgamation of lived experiences, memories, and humanity’s astonishing capacity for symbolisation and constructing narratives, telling stories basically, in a manner of speaking.

With the context of his geographical training, Tuan’s notion of spaces and places is rooted in corporality, as a tangible area that can be occupied and manipulated, built over but also demolished, described and also erased. If we are to go beyond this parameter however, we can also envision the possibility of exploring certain concepts and media as spaces. For example, the subject of history, as an imagining of the past justified through the corroboration of surviving materials, is a space that is contested because in the act of writing and describing it, some elements are always minimised and the others magnified. In this scenario, the property of the historical concept as a vessel, which has the potential to be occupied and inhabited by different voices, agendas, discourses, makes it as real a space as a plot of land in the middle of a public square. It may be boundless in terms of what it can include, as a container of knowledge, but how then that knowledge is accessed, is made visible, changes boundaries and perceptions so powerfully that it can create and destroy entire civilisations, similar to the ways that modern nation states and societies, cognisant of this enormous power, sought to defend the sovereignty of their territories, both materially and conceptually, in borders and cultures.

Cinema, and its presuppositional act of filmmaking, is likewise a medium working in and through space that could offer us insights into our own relationship with spaces. On the formalist front, French philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s conceptions of the cinematic movement-image[2] and time-image[3], which outlines the affective schema of how cinema posits and communicates reality, can only operate because space and the changes that one undergoes are captured and transmitted in such a way that continuity, or the illusion of one, is construed. The postulates of movement and time, even when in a cinematic construct, are implicit of the viewer’s relationship to a space; it is with the experience of having occupied it, moved through it, and felt time pass in it that we can re-enact what was on the screen in our heads, and make sense of what we are watching. Consequently, the ways through which actual spaces are represented, and how they figure in the corresponding narratives, all inform our perceptions and memories, whether real or suggested, of the milieus and time periods of the stories that we consume.

Space, and the memories of one, is outwardly the core concern of Last Night I Saw You Smiling, the debut full-length documentary of Khmer filmmaker Kavich Neang, which follows the last days of the White Building, a storied apartment complex where he was raised, before it was razed for the sake of redevelopment.

Last Night I Saw You Smiling
Still of Last Night I Saw You Smiling. Photo courtesy of artist

 

Opening to the sound of demolition, our journey through the building begins sometime after the end—with the decisions already made, and the fate of the structure and its occupants already sealed. An empty corridor appears after the initial credit runs over a black screen, gutted and in disarray, as an abandoned rattan chicken cage lies in the foreground. Punctuated by the appearance of a construction worker, who departs from a side room to walk to the end of the corridor, the atmosphere is thick with a sense of dull resignation, heaving with the foreboding energy of a creature which understands that it is taking its last breaths.

As the worker’s figure blurs with distance, we cut to an old man—director Kavich’s father—stacking stationery. A notebook, he says ruefully, as he picks one up, should be treated with more respect because it can be very useful. Inspecting the decrepit conditions it is in, he sets it aside from other books and comments: “But we let it be eaten by termites and mice.” This is just one of the many aphorisms captured and littered throughout the film that mirror the situation at hand, as Kavich trains a naturalistic, conscientious lens on the stoic residents, many of them elderly, as they pack up in preparation of leaving for good. This demographic might explain the thread of fatalistic humour that runs through the film’s 75-minute runtime. Elsewhere in Last Night I Saw You Smiling, an old woman comments off-handedly that the way they are forced to leave reminds them of the Pol Pot regime[4]—the infamous, genocidal period of communist dictatorship in Cambodia that killed a quarter of the population, between 1975 and 1979—and that they all laughed because they don’t know what to do; another woman yells in the background for someone to be careful with the live electricity, in case they all die before getting the money for relocation from the government. Money that many already suspect will not be deposited quite as promptly as promised.

Corridors are a recurring motif in Last Night I Saw You Smiling, appearing in various forms—hollow and stranded; teeming with life and people; strewn with garbage and unwanted tchotchke—and also, more to the point, a key architectural element of the space itself. Ideas of transition, be it imposed or voluntary, and common access, as suggested by the artery-like corridors, are significant, especially when we pry further along the lines of context, mainly because of the place that the White Building holds in Phnom Penh’s modern urban history.

Last Night I Saw You Smiling
Still of Last Night I Saw You Smiling. Photo courtesy of artist

 

Originally called the Municipal Apartments, the White Building was constructed in 1963 as part of the larger Bassac Riverfront Project, a massive post-colonial urban renewal project undertaken by the government [5]. Located on reclaimed land on the bank of Tonle Bassac, one of the three rivers whose banks constitute Phnom Penh, the project was ambitious in its goal to construct a national cultural precinct and explore the possibilities of urban social living. The keystone structure of a low-cost housing programme initiated by the Municipal Won Planning and Housing Department which aimed to provide affordable living space to the average and small-income families in Phnom Penh[6]. The complex was designed by the Khmer architect Lu Ban Hap under the supervision of Vann Molyvann, the doyen of Khmer architectural modernism and urban planning. Possessing an elongated layout of more than 300 metres, and comprising six different blocks joined by open staircases, the building combines both Western modernist and Khmer ideals of living in the interior architecture of the inner apartments as a notable example of New Khmer Architecture.

One of the finest demonstrations of the creation of new visual culture as a nation-building post-colonial exercise in Southeast Asia, New Khmer Architecture (NKA), the Cambodian response to the Modern Movement in architecture that occurred from 1953 to 1970, was as much a declaration of a new mode of Khmer modernity free from outside control as it was a statement of ambition for the new era that was to come. NKA was spearheaded by Molyvann, who trained at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris and was the country’s first fully qualified architect. Molyvann also designed key national buildings in the NKA style during the Sangkum Reastr Niyum regime, when Norodom Sihanouk, the then-king of Cambodia abdicated from his throne to run for political office,  ruling for over one-and-a-half decades as its first Prime Minister before being ousted by his US-supported political rival, Lon Nol, which marked the end of the Golden Age of modern Cambodia.

The White Building, as a liveable example of this new modernity, thrived—and withered—alongside the regime which built it, and by 1975, when the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia, it was an abandoned complex in a state of disrepair in the ghost town that was Phnom Penh, with its inhabitants displaced and forced into labour in the countryside. In 1979, as yet another regime was toppled, this time replaced with an administration that was slightly more benign, the Building became a state-designated artist accommodation, with “[t]wo blocks from the north… filled by dancers, musicians, artists and filmmakers.”[7] This situation would eventually resolve itself by the turn of the millennium, as “taxi drivers, police, military, carpenters, artists and so on,” settled, “making the community of the White Building one of the most vibrant communities in the city,” with “[t]he opened staircases becom[ing] the vertical playgrounds of children and places for the community to hangout,” and corridors “the place for many stalls generating a lively- hood [sic].” And finally, by July 2017, the White Building was no more, bulldozed to the ground for what was to become a 21-storey mixed-use development.

Having witnessed the story of a modern capital’s flourishing, decay, and eventual rebirth, it is poignant that a building which survived five decades of violence and ideological shifts should meet its end at the hands of the gentrifying pressure exerted by capitalism—a destiny that did not go unchallenged by the community it housed. Indeed, Last Night I Saw You Smiling, which is produced by the burgeoning Cambodian production company Anti-Archive, is but one of the various creative endeavours that sought to highlight White Building, and in a sense, the monumentality of survival itself. Other examples include The Genealogy of Bassac Project, initiated by Khmer architect and scholar Pen Sereypagna and hosted by Sa Sa Art Projects, Phnom Penh’s first artist-run space which operated in the White Building itself until its demolition, and presented works inspired and directly related to the Building at the 2018 Biennale of Sydney.

By choosing to present the granular and vernacular, director Kavich’s subtle take on what a space means to a community and how it transforms into a place is both nuanced and textured, and becomes all the more powerful for its noiseless reproach. As a gently humanistic portrait of the genius loci at its most vulnerable—the soon-to-be displaced residents bluntly discusses their misgivings when finding the next place to call home; a former actress makes a small gesture of thanksgiving to her home before leaving; Kavich’s father caresses the exposed bricks of a stripped doorway with subdued longing for the last time—the fact that Kavich opts for quiet dignity where vehement anger is expected gives an inner steel to the commentary on displacement, and drives home the sheer tenacity of people who learnt how to be nimble from traumas endured.

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” writes celebrated cultural critic Joan Didion in her seminal essay   The White Album, which chronicled her observations of a very specific sort of American life in the Sixties—the same one that led to the White Building across the world. It is unlikely that Miss Didion will ever know of a Cambodian apartment complex and the memories of it that its inhabitants have, but in Last Night I Saw You Smiling, this is a story that the living tells to keep on living, to keep the knowledge alive that something was once here. Watching the emptied corridors, the piling rubble, and the pictures of a newly built White Building that close the film, it is as if we have just overheard Kavich’s torch song to a space, the place, that raised him: Last night I saw you smiling—but tomorrow you are gone. How could I live without you? Where can I go? What do we do now?

[1] Tuan, Y. (1977). Space and Place: the perspective of experience. University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.
[2] Deleuze, G. (1986). Cinema 1: The Movement-Image. University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.
[3] Deleuze, G. (1989). Cinema 2: The Time-Image. University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.
[4] Khmer Rouge: Cambodia’s years of brutality. BBC
[5] Potter, M., & Louth, J. (2015). Saving the White Building: storytelling and the production of space.
[6] Ross, H. & D. Collins (2006) Building Cambodia: New Khmer architecture 1953-1970. The Key Publisher, Bangkok.
[7] Sereypagna, P. (2015). White Building: Smart City. Nakhara: Journal of Environmental Design and Planning, 11, 101-110.

This review of Last Night I Saw You Smiling by Kavich Neang is based on its screening at the Singapore International Film Festival 2019.

Alfonse Chiu is the creative director and editor-at-large of independent film editorial platform, SINdie, and an independent culture journalist. His writings have appeared in publications such as Kinema: a journal for film and audiovisual media, published by the University of Waterloo, the National Museum of Singapore’s Cinematheque Quarterly, and Hyperallergic. His current research interests include spatial representations and occupancy in urban settings, independent Southeast Asian cinema, and the discursive potentials of self-organising artistic communities.

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