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The title of Davy Chou’s dreamy Cambodian coming-of-age drama, Diamond Island, refers to a small piece of land separated from the city of Phnom Penh by a slender channel. Over the past decade or so, it has been transformed into a modern sprawl of carnival rides, restaurants, and construction projects — including one planned luxury living and shopping center at which shy rural teenager Bora (Sobon Nuon) has just arrived to work as a day laborer. Staying in squalid shacks with a group of other young men, Bora spends his days toiling and making eyes at a group of local girls with his friends; in the evenings, they wander around drinking in the magic neon of a life unavailable to them.
That life starts to feel a little more attainable when Bora’s brother Solei (Cheanick Nov), who had come to Phnom Penh years ago and promptly vanished, emerges one night, his beautiful girlfriend, Lida (Jany Min), by his side. They and their friends haul Bora on one of their mopeds and take him joyriding through the wonderland of Diamond Island. They buzz through stretches of flat nothingness, past rows of construction cranes and rising foundations, and around oases of light, color, and music.
We don’t ever really find out what Solei does, nor do we ever see what, exactly, Bora is introduced to. There are vague hints of possibility: There might be a job waiting at a friend’s bar; Lida wants to set Bora up with her cousin; Solei talks about a mysterious American sponsor who wants him to move to the United States. Throughout, we sense that Bora’s life is awash in uncertainty: He doesn’t belong anywhere in this world, nor does he seem to have any tangible way out of it. His mom, back home in their village, is ill, and there aren’t any prospects back there anyway.
Instead, Chou manages to turn the young man’s journey of discovery into an aesthetic one: Elegant drone shots follow the crew on their mopeds, throbbing lights surround them in clubs, while a twinkling cityscape seen through windows and naked concrete pillars calls to them like a distant mirage. It’s only during a brief sojourn to Phnom Penh proper that Bora sees the bustle and poverty of the actual city; it’s a far cry from the otherworldly blankness of Diamond Island.
Chou isn’t going for anything resembling realism, and I have no idea if Diamond Island is authentic to the lives of Cambodian teens today. The performances are unadorned, even a little distant, which fits with the aestheticized approach. This kind of narrative inexactitude might drive some viewers crazy, but there’s an emotional truth to it, too. Bora doesn’t know what he wants; he longs for the simplest connections and pleasures. In a way, his brother offers him an empty dream not unlike the vague, aspirational promises of Diamond Island itself — which are in turn echoed by the impermanence and seductiveness of the film’s surfaces. Maybe this is a mood more than a movie, but it is a haunting one.
Directed by Davy Chou
Les Films du Losange
Opens October 12, Museum of Modern Art