Eye For Film >> Movies >> Coalesce (2020) Film Review
Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode
Few places in the world are changing as fast as Cambodia. Its economy grew by more than 7% last year, as it has done for most of the 2000s, and the formerly desolate Phnom Penh now full of gleaming skyscrapers. At the same time, however, the income gap between its rich and poor citizens has increased dramatically, with 45% of Cambodians actually seeing their incomes drop. Jessé Miceli’s film follows three young men from poor backgrounds who are trying to make their way in this disorientating new world, living in ways which their parents and grandparents can barely comprehend.
Songsa (Sek Songsa) is a shy, quiet youth who works alongside his father, selling clothes from a tuk tuk, but when left alone he is vulnerable in multiple ways. Phearum (Eang Phearum) is more savvy but still struggles to make a living as a taxi driver, with debts to pay off and a wife and children to support; his sense of humour keeps him grounded as he deals with drunk customers who think he will understand their English better if they shout and one of whom ends up offering him money for sex. Thy (Rom Rithy), meanwhile, finds opportunity working as a host in a gay bar which caters to foreigners with money to splash around. Technically all he needs to do is flatter them and get them to spend more, but it’s obvious that there’s pressure to do other things, as well as danger inherent in the stigma attached to his sexuality. Eventually, the lives of these three young men bring them together.
All three leads are non-professional actors, and although they don’t always stay on top of their game, this brings an appealing freshness to the film. A lot of what we see them doing is close to what they do in real life. Late night journeys around Phnom Penh have a documentary feel to them, despite the beauty that cinematographer Sokheng Run finds there. Miceli is French but has spent several years in the country and works with a local crew to bring it to life onscreen. Although Cambodia has a rich cinematic tradition, its industry is still struggling to recover after being crushed by the Khmer Rouge, which means that engaging with respectful foreigners is a practical way forwards.
Along with the struggles which each character faces, the wealth gap in the country is illustrated by the contrast between the urban scenes and those set in villages, where poverty is evident from the condition of people’s homes and clothes, from their skinny livestock. We see the city mostly at night, illuminated by neon signs, packed with all the kinds of entertainment one might expect to find around the world. It’s a world away from the baked earth and dust of the rural locations, which we see mostly under the glare of the hot sun. Only at the end does Miceli adjust this visual language to remind us of the geographical proximity of the two, and to imply that rural dwellers are being dragged into this new way of living whether they like it or not.
The depth and complexity of the characters in this film, together with an impressive performance from Eang, guarantee that viewers will be caught up in its human drama rather than simply gawping as the tourists do. Despite the seeming ubiquity of abuse and exploitation, this is a place where life is diversifying and different social opportunities are making it easier for people to find their own paths. For Phearum and Thy, this makes a big difference. Songsa, however, struggles to wield any meaningful control over his life. Miceli allows viewers to hope, to dream, but does not permit us to lose sight of reality.Reviewed on: 12 Dec 2021