Diamond Island is a subdued, gestural snapshot of a young Cambodian rural migrant working in the rapidly shifting capital of Phnom Penh. Davy Chou’s 2016 film comes at a moment when Cambodia is undergoing a restless stage of national development and urbanization. Amid the nation’s restless drive to catch up to a shifting, globalized world, Chou motions at us to look toward the unrealized promises of youth caught up in this process.
We open with Bora, an 18-year-old boy from the countryside, leaving for the capital city to work as a day laborer on an upcoming grand urban development: Diamond Island (Koh Pich). Bora says his goodbyes to his aging mother and older brother Vuthy. The soft and solemn final moments between Bora and his family reflect an understated love for one another. Bora travels to Phnom Penh with his village friend Dy, who he is looking out for like a younger brother.
When complete, Diamond Island will be a sprawling exhibition, commercial, and luxury housing complex. French architecture again emerges in a post-colonial Cambodia, while the work camps that produce them lie amid wreckage and squalor. The laborers are alienated from the new world they are creating for the ultra elite — their only role is to deliver it.
While on site, Bora falls into a crowd with other young men, each having greater aspirations beyond day-laboring for the rich. Musa wants to become a security guard because, while the pay isn’t better, he would wear a clean uniform and work in the shade. Virak, the older cocky leader of the group (made fun of for his literal chicken-like haircut), says that he is looking to earn double for the same job in Malaysia.
Everyone knows their lot is limited, but each is looking for a way out.
Throughout the film, Chou contrasts the world of Bora and his compatriots with the potential future Cambodia they are constructing. Chou does this through numerous juxtapositions — a cut between day and night, quiet and loud; to the clean billboards advertising Diamond Island plastered throughout the town and the chaotic, aimless construction tasks.
While out cruising in the city, Bora unexpectedly reconnects with his long-lost older brother, Solei, who introduces Bora to urban thrills of the young, educated petite bourgeoisie.The reason behind Solei’s disappearance is a mystery, but through the course of reconnecting in secrecy, the brothers keep each other at emotional arm’s length, with Solei even threatening to leave Bora again if things don’t work out between them. Despite Solei seemingly fitting into the young, urban night crowd of Phnom Penh, his friends remark that no one among them truly knows him.
Together, the two brothers reflect deeper anxieties of un-belonging and consider leaving together for the United States — at the behest of an unseen wealthy sponsor.
Chou also paints episodes of searching for young love. Bora is smitten for Aza, a girl who lives near the construction site. Predictably, Virak’s macho advances for Aza causes a rift in the friend group. Throughout these scenes, the young lovers struggle to connect in a period where alienation is everywhere.
Diamond Island captures the anxieties and inequalities reflected in Cambodia’s uneven process of national development. There is disconnect and distance between Bora and his family, and from his separate friend groups. The relations between the characters are pushed forward by a series of subdued, at-times guarded, conversations.
The melancholic tone of the film, combined with the understated, naturalistic performances give a convincing depiction of a younger brother struggling to connect with his elder one. Toward the end of the film, the characters of Diamond Island are nowhere where they want to be. The men of the original construction crew move on to other things.
Diamond Island touches on many themes, but at the core are a string of unrealized promises, heartbreak, and yet-to-be realized potential.
Cambodia today is still a developing nation. It faced heavy sanctions by the West after the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge. These sanctions kept the country trapped in poverty and underdevelopment until the post-Khmer Rouge government opened up the fledgling economy to foreign direct investment and globalization. Still shrugging off the effects of French and U.S. colonialism, and a prolonged civil war, and with most of the population still based in the rural countryside, Cambodia is aiming to realize its promises of a renewed, prosperous, and stable society, even at the cost of sections of its population.
Diamond Island is an impressive and distinct film, with clear influences from ‘90s and ‘00s East and Southeast Asian cinema. Fans of Wong Kar-wai will be familiar with Chou’s stylistic choices. The slower pace of the film allows the audience some time to breathe and ponder the naturalistic dynamics between characters, and motions at us to also consider the wider social conditions and processes that draws all of the characters together.