Accompanied by the beats of a ‘60s Cambodian pop song, TURN LEFT TURN RIGHT opens with a shaggy-haired young woman posing amid picturesque ruins of Angkor Wat. The scene, called “Track 1” by the title card, plays a bit like a K-TV music video, and it sets the tone for what Korean American director Douglas Seok describes as a “concept album,” a cinematic experiment blending music, dance, and neo-realism. The narrative proper tracks that flighty young woman, Kanitha (Tith Kanitha), as she fumbles her way through menial jobs in Phnom Penh. While her mother wants her to settle into a traditional family life, she dreams of music and dance. Quiet and seemingly disaffected, Kanitha shows herself to be devoted to her dying father, taking him on a road trip to relive a childhood memory.
Director Seok tells this simple, moving story unhurriedly, with a meditative rhythm evoking the work of Apichatpong Weerasethakul. The Thai master’s influence can also be felt in this film’s collapsing of dreamlife with reality. As Kanitha drifts into her own little world, her drab existence is interrupted by delightful interludes. Coming without warning or obvious cues (besides the “Track” title), these pop music fantasias and abstract reveries (such as images of waves superimposed over Kanitha’s dancing) infuse the film with sheer joy.
TURN LEFT TURN RIGHT is Seok’s feature debut, but he’s no stranger to the LAAPFF, having lensed Steve Chen’s beautiful DREAM LAND from last year’s Festival. Both films, as well as Davy Chou’s DIAMOND ISLAND, part of this year’s program, are produced by Anti-Archive, a collective of young Asian American/Asian European filmmakers creating Cambodian art films. TURN LEFT TURN RIGHT is the group’s boldest, most challenging film, and it will reward viewers looking for fresh new voices in Asian cinema.
— Ryan Wu