Modernisation and the Cambodian Artist

This programme explores how the urban aspirations of Cambodian art and architecture of the 1960s relates to the dreams and challenges faced by creative communities in Phnom Penh today. It consists of two feature films, The Burnt Theatre by Rithy Panh and Last Night I Saw You Smiling by Kavich Neang, followed by a conversation between director Kavich Neang and Gallery curator Roger Nelson. Neang and Nelson will compare notes on the White Building, which both saw as a thriving space before it was demolished, and discuss some recently acquired artworks from Cambodia dating back to that period currently on show in the UOB Southeast Asia Gallery. 

This conversation is pre-recorded.

Rating: PG


By Rithy Panh

Cambodia, France | In Khmer with English subtitles | 2005 | 83 min 19 sec | PG

Sat 10 Jul | 2pm

While much of Cambodia’s cultural heritage was systematically eradicated during the Khmer Rouge regime, the Preah Suramarit National Theatre was one of the few landmarks left standing. The theatre was part of the Bassac Riverfront Complex, a cultural precinct consisting of arts housing and other public residential developments like the Municipal Apartments (known as the White Building). It was designed by Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann, who pioneered New Khmer Architecture, an architectural movement that integrated modernist principles and traditional Khmer motifs.

Ironically, the theatre was badly damaged by fire while undergoing repairs in 1994, and never restored. It is in this roofless auditorium that a Khmer classical dance troupe continues to practice daily, while a theatre troupe attempts to produce a Khmer-language adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac

Journalist Bopha interviews these artists against this backdrop, as they share poignant, haunting memories about their lives. Meanwhile, the constant pounding of pile drivers fills the air, laying the foundations of new developments that point to the nation’s new priorities. The film’s setting amidst the remains of the theatre and the old precinct recognises the legacy of artists, and the importance of restoring the prominence of the arts in the national consciousness, so that the country may have a way to heal from its traumatic past.

The Burnt Theatre premiered at the Cannes Film Festival (2005) and has since travelled to film festivals across the world, including the San Francisco International Film Festival (2006) and the Sao Paulo International Film Festival (2005).


Rithy Panh (b.1964, Cambodia) has directed numerous internationally acclaimed films, including Rice People, which premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival (1994), and The Land of the Wandering Souls, which won the Grand Prize at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival (2001). He also directed S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, which was awarded the Albert Londres Prize in 2004 and The Missing Picture, which won the Un Certain Regard Prize at the Cannes Film Festival (2013). More recently, his film Exile was exhibited at Cannes Film Festival (2016), and Irradiated won the Berlinale Documentary Award (2020). 


By Kavich Neang

Cambodia, France | In Khmer with English subtitles | 2019 | 77 min 34 sec | PG

Sat 10 Jul | 4.30pm

Municipal Apartments, also known as the White Building, was a landmark structure and home to hundreds of families in Phnom Penh. It stood next to the Preah Suramarit National Theatre, forming part of the Bassac Riverfront Complex of buildings designed by Vann Molyvann and his team of architects and urban planners. The precinct was part of Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s grand vision of a new city centre that would mark a modern Cambodia. Both have now been demolished to make way for commercial projects and privatised enclaves. 

While The Burnt Theatre employs metaphors to express socio-economic realities, Last Night I Saw You Smiling documents the real-life stories of three families who lived in the White Building, including the director’s own household. The film offers an intimate glimpse into their lives as they pack up their belongings during the final days before demolition. Neang’s recurring dreams about his childhood home take shape within the space of the film, allowing him to return to cherished details of it in a present reality where it no longer exists.

Last Night I Saw You Smiling premiered at the Rotterdam International Film Festival (2019), where it won the NETPAC Award. The film has since garnered other accolades like the Special Jury Prize at Jeonju International Film Festival (2019), and has been selected for many festivals including the Locarno Film Festival (2019), the Taipei Film Festival (2019) and Visions du Réel (2019).


Kavich Neang (b. 1987, Cambodia) is a filmmaker whose first two short films, A Scale Boy (2011) and Where I Go (2013), were produced by filmmaker Rithy Panh. In 2015, he directed two short films—Three Wheels, which premiered at the Busan International Film Festival (2015), and Goodbye Phnom Penh, commissioned by Asian Film Archive. His 2018 short, New Land Broken Road, premiered at Singapore International Film Festival (2018). He is an alumnus of the Busan Asian Film Academy, and part of Talents Tokyo, Visions du Reel’s Docs-in-Progress, and Cannes Cinéfondation’s Residency. He is currently completing his first narrative feature, White Building.

Dialogue with Kavich Neang

Watch the full interview here.

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