Busan 2020 Review: COALESCE Shows Cambodia as a Land Compromised by Opportunity
Three young men look to forge their own paths in the fast-developing Kingdom of Cambodia in French filmmaker Jessé Miceli’s keenly observed debut feature. Employing non-professional actors and an entirely Cambodian cast, what follows is a coherent and engaging story of a nation struggling to maintain its cultural identity, and a trio of youngsters hoping to establish themselves within this fast-moving economic current.
It has been more than 40 years since the Khmer Rouge ended its reign of terror, and another 27 years since the kingdom’s monarch was restored. China’s Belt and Road Initiative has seen a number of surrounding countries benefit from this far-reaching economic infrastructure development strategy. Cambodia has been one such beneficiary. Its capital Phnom Penh, as well as the port town of Sihanoukville, have expanded exponentially in less than a decade.
Understandably, impoverished locals are eager to get in on the action, flocking to these urban centres of commerce and tourism, where there is plenty of opportunity to make some fast cash, provided they don’t mind bending to the whims of the visiting crowds.
Songsa (Sek Songsa) hopes to make a living selling clothes on busy street corners from his boss’ rickshaw. For someone so young, the daily pressures of the job prove difficult, however, from the long hours to the fiercely competitive marketplace, and simply being exposed to the shadier elements of society.
Meanwhile, Thy (Rom Rithy) is looking to buy a motorcycle, so gets a job at a local nightclub, catering specifically to western men. Rather than waiting tables, the position requires him to dance and make small talk with customers. He receives a generous commission for every drink he is bought, and should he be willing to cater to their other needs, the financial rewards similarly increase.
At the same time, Phearum (Eang Phearum) has come to the capital with his wife. He works long hours as a taxi driver, which exposes him to all manner of international clients, from sex tourists to resident expatriates. Before the end of Miceli's film, the lives of these three young men will intersect.
As the title suggests, Coalesce is about these two very different worlds attempting to live together harmoniously. These young men are not looking to exploit or take advantage of their affluent guests, but merely to utilise Cambodia’s changing economic fortunes to their benefit.
Conversely, their is an air of neo-colonialism about how the foreigners interact with the country and its people. The Chinese are swooping in en masse, pouring millions into redevelopment, transforming Sihanoukville into a casino town, but all for their own benefit rather than for the betterment of the country. Similarly, those who frequent the nightclubs and massage parlours of Phnom Penh seem to care little for the wellbeing of their hosts, only to quench their own, potentially illegal, desires.
Miceli’s film also gives us a glimpse of Cambodia’s expatriate lifestyle, which feels predictably populated by carefree, perpetually inebriated youngsters simply looking for a good time and an escape from the realities of home, again, without any meaningful intergration with their surroundings.
Miceli succeeds in creating a grounded realism to his film, a scripted fiction but one no more than a hair’s breadth from the truth. This is helped no end by the cast, in particular Eang Phearum, who nurture a strong sense of empathy and affection within the viewer without tugging at our heartstrings or resorting to clumsy, exploitative poverty porn in order to trigger a reaction.
While the future of Cambodia looks bleak, and the threat of becoming a neon-drenched playground to debauched and affluent mainland tourists seems an all-too-real possibility, Coalesce finds a glimmer of hope in its people.