Davy Chou’s first narrative feature Diamond Island is named after a luxury development over the bridge from Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. Hyped as a place of residential opulence and leisurely pleasure, it’s in a half-finished state when naïve teenager Bora (Sobon Nuon) arrives from the countryside to take a menial construction site job. This set-up suggests a commentary on Cambodia’s growing class divide with a protagonist toiling away for meager wages and the film certainly exudes a certain frustration with regards to inequality, yet it’s a bittersweet experience on the whole. By playing out the tropes of the coming-of-age genre against the backdrop of an emerging economy, Chou has crafted a beguiling blend of youth drama and cultural anthropology.
Presenting an even-handed account of the migrant worker experience, the film finds Bora lugging scrap around by day and enjoying new experiences offered by the urbanized environment by night. Their means are limited, but the de facto leader of his crew, Virak (Samnang Nut), provides a guide to wooing girls for just $10. Despite being attractive enough to catch the eye of the lovely Asa (Madeza Chhem), Bora is the shy type – “I’m not a cool kid,” he concedes when complemented on his hairstyle. Unexpectedly reconnecting with his older brother Solei (Cheanick Nov), Bora gets a taste of life on the other side of the economic fence. The broodingly charismatic Solei (Cheanick Nov) severed contact after leaving home five years previously and now hangs out with the cellphone-clutching in-crowd.
In lackadaisical fashion, Chou tells a universal tale of a teenager finding his place in the world, a human process that involves coming to terms with the imperfect structures of the family unit and friendship groups. Bora is torn between the upscale trappings that come with Solei’s social circle and the easygoing camaraderie that he enjoys with his co-workers, such as the amiable Dy (Mean Korn). There’s also the matter of the lovely Asa, with whom Bora naturally clicks, only for Solei to insist that he would be better off with the more affluent Leakhena (Samnang Khim). Chou’s loose, episodic approach to storytelling and Thomas Favel’s handheld camerawork may give the impression that Bora’s adolescent dilemmas are inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, but a melancholic epilogue that takes place several years down the line shows how early life choices lead to lingering regrets.
Much of the film’s appeal comes from how organically Chou employs routines, rituals, and scenarios that are now stock elements of the youth movie lexicon to explore a new space (Asa refers to 2009 as “the dawn of time” since their was nothing on Diamond Island until relatively recently). Friendly banter and romantic courtship occur around shared shantytown housing or night market areas, while moped rides provide a tour that illustrates the extent of the project’s commercial ambitions. Chou’s influences are easy enough to spot – his depiction of aimless youth is reminiscent of Tsai Ming-liang’s Rebels of the Neon God (1992) and the ethereal electronic score by Jérémie Arcache and Christophe Musset echoes Lim Giong’s compositions for Jia Zhangke – but the unique location makes for a fresh cinematic excursion. It’s abundantly colorful, too, whether following Bora and his friends as they head out for the night in their funkiest casual attire or enhancing neon illuminations in a manner that brings to mind the brilliant glow of Greg Girard’s photography.
If the performances sometimes betray the cast’s inexperience, this occasional awkwardness also adds to the film’s nuance and produces a number of genuine moments. Of the charming ensemble, the standout is Nut whose heartfelt turn as Virak is especially affecting when the outwardly brash, inwardly sensitive young worker publicly suffers romantic humiliation.
Since premiering at Cannes in 2016, where it won the SACD prize at the International Critics’ Week sidebar, Diamond Island has been gradually making its away around the festival circuit and is worth catching for its tender portrait of youth within a steadily globalizing landscape.
Diamond Island receives its UK premiere on September 17 at the Close-Up Cinema, London as part of the Aperture: Asia & Pacific Film Festival.