I was fortunate enough to catch the UK premiere of Davy Chou’s Diamond Island at the Aperture: Asia & Pacific Film Festival as organised by Day for Night at the Close-Up Film Centre on Monday 17 September 2018.
The film is a beautiful movie told largely in the neorealist tradition, using non-professional actors, being shot on location, and having as its primary concern the social mobility of two brothers, Bora (Sobon Nuon) and Solei (Cheanick Nov), in contemporary Phnom Penh.
For, Bora, having recently moved to the city to work on the building site for the luxury development from which the film takes its title, runs into his brother, Solei, after not having seen him for five years.
Bora has come to town to raise money to help his mother, who is ill, while Solei, having left home for unknown reasons, makes his way in the capital as a well-to-do student who is being sponsored by an American.
The brothers reconnect and Solei begins to help Bora financially, promising to take him abroad – and dragging him away not only from his friends on the building site, but also from Aza (Madeza Chhem), whom Bora fancies, but whom Solei tells him to leave behind.
What plays out is a film that is ponderous and yet visually arresting, with no real recourse to melodrama, although Chou does use both atmospheric musical sequences and the odd ‘experimental’ technique (e.g. split screens) in order to give to the film a visual and aural fabric that takes Diamond Island away from neorealism and into the realm of poetic realism.
In particular, the film’s lighting scheme adds an expressive element to the film’s mise-en-scène, and it is this that I would like to discuss here.
For, Diamond Island is defined regularly by a blue hue that emanates most often from neon lights, digital screens, moments that take place at dusk, the sky, the sky as reflected on occasion in the water that surrounds the titular island, and various objects in the mise-en-scène, including pallets, t-shirts and pipes.
However, it is in particular the blue neon lights upon which I’d like to concentrate.
For, consistently throughout the film, we see a cool neon blue light permeate the space of the film, particularly via the lights on the mopeds and smartphone screens that the richer kids in the film can afford, and which we see at various points being used by youths during Chou’s various montage sequences.
In other words, the blue light becomes associated with digital technology in the film – as per the blue light emitted by phone screens and which disrupts the production of melanin, and consequently disrupts sleep patterns, converting humans from entities that live in circadian rhythms into beings that live according to the permanent now of 24:7 capital and the attention economy.
Becoming blue, then, is akin to becoming economically successful – having a screen existence in which one peddles one’s own image rather than singing other people’s songs off a karaoke screen as per Bora’s poorer friends.
Soon after Bora’s arrival at the Diamond Island building site, Chou cuts to a 3D digital animation that offers us a simulated fly-through of the hotel and tourist site that is soon to appear on the island.
The moment is notable both for the digital nature of the images and for the sensation of flight through the space that the animation provokes. This compares significantly with the relatively static camera that follows Bora at pedestrian pace and level during the majority of the film.
Not long after Bora has re-found Solei, Solei takes him out on his moped – and now Chou uses a drone to follow Bora, Solei and his richer friends as they ride around the island and at one point also into Phnom Penh.
It is not that Solei introduces Bora to a world of increased mobility; it is that this mobility is also associated with elevation and the ability to rise above the ground and dirt that Bora normally works on the building site.
Humans under capitalism wish to head upwards – to disconnect themselves from the ground and to become airborne. That is, and as per ‘blue sky thinking,’ they want to head up into the blue. To become blue, then, is to become integrated into capitalism by virtue of becoming rich.
Indeed, it is perhaps coincidental but nonetheless telling that Bora’s transition out of the building site is achieved by taking a job managing the café that Solei’s friend Blue (Batham Oun) sets up in Phnom Penh.
In addition, Bora accompanies Solei and his friends to a party in an empty apartment, where Bora sleeps for a period on a lavish bed that has blue neon lights around its head. It is also in this space that the friends gather to look at some 3D holograms – the height of digital imaging technologies. Notably, one of the animations is of a blue jellyfish – as if the blue light of digital technology also took on a tentacular and Cthulhoid quality – as befits the work on digital technology and tentacled sea creatures that David H Fleming and I have been developing, and the first published iteration of which will soon appear in the journal Film-Philosophy.
The promise of the capitalist blue sky may in fact be the appearance ‘out of the blue’ of an alien, digital intelligence that is not the culmination of humanity, but its very replacement.
And if Cambodia is still marked by the history of the Khmer Rouge, as per Chou’s last film, the documentary Golden Slumbers (France/Cambodia, 2011), then, without wishing to make too crass a pun, then the toll on the new Cambodia that emerges along with global capital might be characterised as a Khmer bleu.
Or, to link this film’s fairground sequences to another ‘blue’ film that also uses the fairground as an important backdrop for its descent into greed, this might be Cambodia’s ‘blue ruin.’
The ultraviolet quality of some of this blue light also brings to mind the possibility of seeing in the dark and different colours on the light spectrum that typically remain invisible.
As Bora progresses into visibility, then, he is contrasted relatively strongly with the more telluric hues of the his construction worker friends, who continue at the film’s end to live on Diamond Island, eking out existences that may not have the mobility that Bora comes to enjoy, but which nonetheless have an enduring dignity that Chou’s film sensitively captures.