2019, NR, 86 min. Directed by Denis Do. Voices by Bérénice Bejo, Louis Garrel, Brice Montagne, Thierry Jahn.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., June 21, 2019
The funny thing about political and social upheaval is that it's sudden. There's no long buildup to the end of normalcy. One day in 1975, Chou (Bejo) and Khuon (Garrel) are at home in Phnom Penh with their child Sovanh and the rest of the family: The next, they are marching toward an uncertain future at the barrel of a Khmer Rouge gun, deprived of food, possessions and, increasingly, each other.
In the tradition of nakedly political and utterly personal animated features like Persepolis and Waltz With Bashir, the emotionally grueling Funan uses the simplicity of cartoon lines to bring home a powerful and ultimately vital story of fear and hope. Its re-creation of the oppression of the Cambodian nation between 1975 and 1979 by the zealots of the Khmer Rouge lacks the mud-splattered brutality of the seminal Western cinematic depiction, 1984's The Killing Fields, but that makes it no less impactful.
Funan takes its name from the ancient kingdom that, at its height, stretched from the Bay of Bengal to the South China Sea, and incorporated much of modern Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand. To the Khmer Rouge, it represented some sort of ethnic and political purity from before Western colonists, but for the characters it's merely a cover for cruelty. In a film about how a radical revolutionary group demanded citizens reject the trappings of imperialism, it's occasionally distracting that the dialogue is in French – the language of the occupiers that the Khmer Rouge was trying to erase. However, this is not a Cambodian film but a family document of sorts, inspired by the real-life experience of French-born writer/director Denis Do's mother under the Khmer Rouge. While it begins with the whole family, as well as ancillary characters like Sok (Jahn), who joins the Khmer Rouge, and Meng (Montagne), a fellow prisoner who makes a run for the border, they are all slowly pulled aside. That leaves Chou alone to survive the daily grind and perpetual threats, with only the hope that somewhere Sovanh survives to keep her going. From the opening moments – a dream in which she sees herself separated from her child by ghostly figures – to the scenes of the family enjoying a massive dinner, Do quietly builds up everything she stands to lose, and everything that is stripped away from her over the following four years.
The violence of this slow-moving genocide takes place primarily offscreen, heard more often than it is seen. That's a wise choice by Do, as this could have been unrelentingly brutal without retaining its quiet emotional impact. Instead, he relies on the responses of the characters to what is going on just beyond the frame, and subtle details – a hint of a collarbone that starts to become the skeletal jag of emaciation, the bitter costs of survival mechanisms like trading sex for food, the shadow of a hanging body. It's an education suitable for both children ready to see the world's shadows, and for adults who may still not comprehend Southeast Asian history beyond the Vietnam War.