In the experimental documentary The Plastic House, Australian filmmaker Allison Chhorn returns to a greenhouse on her Cambodian family’s farm after the death of both of her parents. This is a deeply personal journey and one that is extremely physically and emotionally taxing as Chhorn takes up the responsibility of farming the land and being its caretaker.
Chhorn’s parents may be absent from the narrative, but we are called to remember them from its first moments: an early title card reads “Mum: 1959-2015,” one a few minutes later reads “Dad: 1959-2016,” and then we drive through the darkness to visit gravesites. But her departed relatives facilitate growth even after they are gone, and the land comes alive as Chhorn breathes life into it through her hands and camera. She approaches her role as a steward of the land with tenderness and intense care.
She ties up her hair and puts on gloves, and the film observes her surroundings with a combination of solid shots of the landscape as well as perspective camerawork that places us as a participant, immersed in the labor. The Plastic House places us right in the middle of the hazy humidity of the greenhouse — the camera lens is coated with moisture, and focuses on hands and bodies rather than faces. Occasionally, the camera leaves the greenhouse to reveal shadowy shots of dark bedrooms and billowing sheets — showing that there is never an idle moment for Chhorn and hinting at a deep spiritual restlessness.
Chhorn takes a silent and sensory approach to capturing the fields, tilling the soil, and toiling away. There are brief conversations in Khmer, yet the film is, for the most part, nearly wordless, with sounds of heavy rains, dripping water, or chirping birds carrying across montages and between spaces. The sonic texture and the intentionally choppy editing provide a tactile and physical sense of how the body and the natural world respond to loss. While the pain behind some image flashes is never fully explained, the ruptures in the visuals call attention to a profound feeling of absence, where our sense of continuity, normalcy, and routines are disrupted by grief.
But time passes, and the labor continues — as they must, life goes on. As we follow Chhorn‘s daily chores, we also see her work through her relationship with her parents. Her journey is both nostalgic and forward-looking as she raises questions about how we can live and work without others, and how we can honor the memory and carry on the legacy of those who have departed. Ultimately, the filmmaker pays respect to her parents by carrying on all the emotional and physical labor they put in to create their lush greenhouse filled with verdant life.
This documentary is powerful in its quietness, and there is a ritualistic quality to how a woman goes about her duties in isolation. The work slowly becomes second nature, deeply ingrained into her physicality, as she carries on the traditions and teachings of those that came before. The greenhouse’s plastic roof is weighed down by the nearly ceaseless rain, but it feels as if Chhorn is unburdened through her process of reflection. The Plastic House celebrates the simple moments and the comfort that can be found in routine, and Chhorn’s creation is an astonishingly effective therapy session, as well as a breathtakingly beautiful celebration of the hope that can continue to grow after your roots and relatives are torn away.