'Diamond Island': Cannes Review

Diamond Island - H 2016
A sweet and sumptuous coming-of-ager that lacks sufficient narrative drive.

Director Davy Chou ('Golden Slumbers') screened his second feature in the Critics’ Week.

Named after one of those Las Vegas-style luxury housing developments popping up in places like Dubai, Mumbai, Dakar and now, Phnom Penh, Diamond Island tells the story of a shy and humble 18-year-old from the Cambodian provinces who arrives in the big city to help build one such architectural monstrosity, only to find his personal life upended by family, friends and his budding romance with a local girl.

The second feature of writer-director Davy Chou, following his insightful and beautiful documentary Golden Slumbers (which played the Berlinale in 2012), this fictional effort benefits from a sharp sense of style that makes good use of the exotic (for us) settings and cast of young untrained actors. At the same time, its narrative often plays out like a coming-of-age tale we’ve seen many times before, offering up select moments of grace but not enough originality in the storytelling department. After a Cannes premiere in the Critics’ Week, it should see modest sales to niche distributors, especially in Europe, and plenty of festival play around the world.

Reminiscent of both Satyajit Ray’s Aparajito in its fish-out-of-water account of a kid trying to make it in the city and of Tsai Ming-liang’s Rebels of the Neon Gods in its portrayal of disaffected Asian youth, the scenario by Chou — in collaboration with Claire Maugendre — follows the travails of Bora (Sobon Nuon), a young country bumpkin who arrives at Diamond Island to work a menial job hauling scrap from one building site to another.

Living in a shantytown nearby the titular complex along with hundreds of other low-paid workers, he befriends a group of guys his age, including the chatty and somewhat punkish Dy (Mean Korn), while catching the eye of the lovely Aza (Madez Chhem), who seems to like him for both his modesty and good looks.

But city life is quickly — or rather slowly, because Chou likes to take his time dishing out plot points — complicated when Bora runs into his older brother Solei (Cheanick Nov), who left the homestead years ago and hasn’t really been heard from since. The latter seems to be living it up in Phnom Penh, driving around town on a fancy moped and hanging out with his own crew and girlfriend, all of it thanks to the help of a mysterious “American sponsor" (clearly a euphemism for Solei's work as a gigolo — a fact Bora remains ignorant of or else doesn't want to acknowledge).

More contemplative than kinetic, Chou often observes his hero’s trajectory from a distance — sometimes quite gorgeously, such as when the camera pulls back to reveal Bora, Solei and their buddies riding through the streets as the sun sets and their headlights shine through the darkness (in a sequence reminiscent of the Tsai film). Working with DP Thomas Favel (Gaz de France), Chou builds a rich palette of blues and yellows, contrasting the dusty world of condo construction with the candy-colored nightclubs and amusement parks that Bora frequents as he emerges into adulthood.

Yet as much as the helmer’s aesthetic is impressive, the laconic pacing and somewhat flat performances can be a bit of a drag, as is a script that heads to familiar places and takes a while to do so. One wonders at times if a simple documentary wouldn’t have been better than this kind of naturalistic fiction, which in its best scenes shows what life is like for those sacrificing themselves so others can live in the lap of luxury. In that sense, Diamond Island ultimately works more as a social portrait than as a rather classic bildungsroman, revealing all the sweat, suffering and heartache it takes to build one massive diamond in the rough.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Critics’ Week)
Production company: Aurora Films
Cast: Sobon Nuon, Cheanick Nov, Madez Chhem, Mean Korn, Jany Min
Director: Davy Chou
Screenwriter: Davy Chou, in collaboration with Claire Maugendre
Producer: Charlotte Vincent
Director of photography: Thomas Favel
Production designer: Kanitha Tith
Costume designer: Samphors Chorn
Editor: Laurence Leveneur
Composer: Jeremie Arcache
Sales agent: Les Films du Losange

In Cambodian

Not rated, 103 minutes