Last Night I Saw You Smiling (USA, 2019) [CAAMFest 2019]

Kavich Neang’s documentary Last Night I Saw You Smiling concerns the almost 500 families forced to leave the iconic White Building in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Neang, in his first feature-length work, follows a few families, including his own, from the time they were told by the government they had to vacate the building up until the building’s demolition.

The White Building was built in 1963 amid green spaces and quickly became very important to Cambodia as modern country. Unfortunately, in 1975 the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot forced the people out during their “re-education” campaign. By 1979 people were moving back into the cities and the White Building, including many civil servants, artists, and musicians. Once again a model of modern Cambodia, the building came to be seen as a thriving community. However, over the decades the rest of Phnom Penh crept in and neglect led to the building eventually becoming a slum. The property was sold to a Japanese firm and was declared unsafe for habitation. The families were being forced out again, though this time they were being compensated.

Throughout the film, Neang speaks with some of the residents as they discuss their concerns about where they are going, and if they will in fact be getting the money they were promised. We see the residents over their last weeks in the building as they pack up everything they own, deciding what to take and what to leave, down to the doors and windows of their various apartments. One woman is seen trying to make enough gift bags to sell so she can make enough money to find suitable housing. At many points in the film, though, we see the people still living their lives even while finalizing where they will go, getting trucks to help them move their belongings, and get additional confirmation as to how they will ultimately receive their compensation.

At one point, Neang speaks to two different women about being forced out now versus being forced out in 1975 by the communist regime and how even though they are being compensated this time, they still clearly feel as though they are losing a large part of their lives. After all, they spent decades rebuilding lives and raising their families. The White Building is more than just a place to live for many of these people.

It was sad to see what these residents were going through, putting things into boxes while speaking about what is happening and how they feel about it all. Last Night I Saw You Smiling shows more than just nostalgia for the building. It shows the feelings of loss, vulnerability, and uncertainly that many of the building’s residents are experiencing. What I did wish Neang had included in his film was those families talking more about their experiences while living in such an iconic building with a vibrant and talented community. What was it like to live there for almost forty years? Otherwise, Last Night I Saw You Smiling is a very good documentary about loss and change that has been imposed rather than sought out. The last few minutes show the demolition of the White Building itself, even though the lives of those who lived there will continue elsewhere. The building may be gone but the former residents’ memories will continue.

Last Night I Saw You Smiling is showing at CAAMFest 2019 on May 12 and 13.