When 18-year old Bora (Sobon Nuon) leaves rural Cambodia to become a construction worker, he is reunited with missing brother Solei (Cheanick Nov) on “Diamond Island,” a glittering half-finished luxury development near Phnom Penh. The narrative feature debut of French-Cambodian helmer Davy Chou, this compassionate film is as much about its very specific Cambodian setting as it is the characters, with the film’s standout star its neon-pastel location work. Scenes showing teens working on construction of the development by day and hanging out, flirting, on the island at night are tinged with bittersweet tenderness: The new Cambodia of luxury apartments that they are paid $150 a month to build is not intended for them. Themes of inequality and longing are universal, but the dreamy, low-stakes plotting could make crossover to a mainstream audience difficult.
The narrative framework here is loose-limbed, functioning more as an excuse to get out there and make a film in a well-chosen setting. A street-cast ensemble of mixed ability impresses most in naturalistic moments where dialogue is minimal. The sight of a gang of four boys in bright shirts of variously lurid tone peacocking their way through a fairground, eyeing up girls, is a dynamic that transcends nationality. In the U.S., Richard Linklater’s “Everybody Wants Some!!” essentially used this image as the basis for an entire film; likewise, one of the U.K.’s most successful big-screen comedies, “The Inbetweeners Movie,” understood the inherent bathos of boys on the verge of adulthood testing their hard-won masculinity in an unforgiving arena.
In “Diamond Island,” the girls are generally equally keen to impress, clustering in giggling gaggles and occasionally sending out emissaries to gauge interest. One of the film’s best moments sees a self-appointed alpha male laid low, as the girl he has his eye on turns out to be crushing on one of his friends. It’s a very pure moment of adolescent truth.
Other gambits are less successful. Two-shots filmed in long takes, from a distance great enough to incorporate swathes of Diamond Island into the background, are perhaps intended to show the youth of Cambodia as constantly dominated by their environment. In theory, that’s a neat idea. In practice, given the relative inexperience of the cast, shorter takes, cutting around some of the more difficult line deliveries, might have flattered the performances more effectively.
Nevertheless, this is an encouragingly ambitious first feature film on a technical level — not everything comes off, but original ideas abound. The sound mix in particular has fun with some playful concepts, with the noise and music in nightclub scenes 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.
Color grading from Yannig Willman likewise makes a conscious effort to push the visuals into defiantly unrealistic territory, with a fairground in particular benefiting from wildly saturated fluorescence, blinking in the dark. Chou perhaps counts Gaspar Noé’s “Enter The Void” among his visual influences, though there is none of Noé’s trademark lasciviousness on display in a film that takes a relatively innocent attitude to teenage courtship rituals.
It is to be hoped that the film marks, in a small way, a new flowering of Cambodian cinema. The grandson of one of Cambodia’s most prolific producers prior to the Khmer Rouge purges — which, of course, eliminated most of the country’s creative practitioners — the French-born Chou brightly represents a new generation. It’s heartening that Cambodia is where he has chosen to develop his voice, with “Diamond Island” a follow up to his well-regarded feature doc “Golden Slumbers,” which examined lost Cambodian cinema destroyed by the Khmer Rouge dictatorship.
While commercial prospects for the film are not extensive, a healthy festival life seems assured and the film should act as a visually memorable calling card for Chou’s burgeoning directorial skills.