An unearthly neon glow emanates from the Phnom Penh street lights at night in Diamond Island. A similar luminosity was glimpsed throughout Wong Kar-wai’s depiction of Hong Kong nightlife in Chungking Express and Fallen Angels, though director and co-writer Davy Chou’s aesthetic touch is less jazzily impulsive than Wong’s, more Tsai Ming-liang-like in its surface sobriety. Still, there’s a near-surreal quality to Diamond Island’s images—lensed by cinematographer Thomas Favel—that infuses the film with a woozily intoxicating dreaminess that grips the audience’s attention, even when Chou’s loose coming-of-age narrative goes in fairly predictable directions.
As Chou’s previous feature, the documentary Golden Slumbers, implied in its exploration of Cambodian cinema’s heyday in the 1960s and ’70s, Cambodia remains relatively unexplored on screen, especially when it comes to modern daily life. This film, Chou’s first fiction feature, reveals a developing nation in transition, with all the societal growing pains that such change entails. The title refers to the name of a luxury housing development being built in Phnom Penh, for which 18-year-old country bumpkin Bora (Sobon Nuon) leaves his village to work as a day laborer for meager wages. Essentially, he’s slaving away helping to construct a lavish housing complex that he himself may never be able to afford. Such an irony suggests a vast divide between rich and poor that, Chou implies, characterizes Cambodia as a whole.
That chasm is only amplified when Bora catches up with his long-lost brother, Solei (Cheanick Nov), who appears to be living large in Phnom Penh—to the point that he gives him an iPhone 6 as a gift, which impresses Bora’s friends. This dynamic between the two siblings drives Diamond Island on a narrative level, as Bora finds himself becoming seduced by Solei’s lifestyle at the expense of his friendships with his fellow construction workers, most of whom accuse him of becoming snobby in his ways.
The aimless rhythms and low-stakes plotting make clear that Davy Chou is most interested in cultural anthropology.
Things become even more complicated for Bora when Solei floats the possibility of moving to America—this not long after he begins romancing Aza (Madeza Chhem), who also lives in the shantytown where he and his work colleagues reside. Throughout these entanglements, it’s clear that Diamond Island isn’t working up much dramatic momentum, which might have helped disguise the relative overfamiliarity of some of the story’s later developments and the sense that the film is slowly trudging to an inevitable destination. But it’s also clear from the film’s deliberately aimless rhythms and low-stakes plotting that Chou is predominantly interested in cultural anthropology, and many individual scenes here are striking for the sensitively captured details of human behavior and landscape, like a four-way split-screen sequence depicting characters obsessing over their cellphones, or a slow pan across a river bed with a Diamond Island billboard seen far in the distance.
Above all, Diamond Island registers as a mood piece, though the moods it conjures are as multifaceted as the emotions Bora feels as he navigates the two economic realities of his daily life. The emphasis throughout on neon colors in nighttime scenes—with a filter applied to the lens to give the images a lightly smeary, oversaturated look—is seductive enough to suggest what it is about the big city that attracts Bora, while the synthesizer-heavy drones of Jérémie Arcache and Christophe Musset’s score, to some degree, counteract that glamour with a sense of underlying melancholy.
Amid this stylistic play, though, naturalism still dominates many scenes, with the camera observing the characters’ comfortable rhythms of male bonding, the awkwardness of first-time courtship, and the pains of adjusting to an unfamiliar environment. Through all this, Chou certainly wears his influences on his sleeve—not just Wong Kar-Wai in his aesthetic flourishes and Tsai Ming-liang in his flair for light surrealism, but also Jia Zhang-ke in his socially critical eye. But the filmmaker brings enough original aesthetic touches to the table, as well as a fresh cultural perspective to the broader socioeconomic issues he broaches, that Diamond Island rarely feels derivative.