Though animation is typically associated with kid fare, there are plenty of excellent exceptions to this rule. 2017’s The Breadwinner portrayed an ordinary girl’s repression under the Taliban, 2007’s Persepolis is a splendid feminist coming-of-age story under Khomeini’s rule in Iran, and my own favorite of this ilk, Studio Ghibli’s Grave of the Fireflies, unforgettably follows a brother and sister’s fight to survive Tokyo’s WW2 firebombing.
We can now add Funan to this noble group. Incredibly, this is Denis Do’s feature debut, which deservedly won the Best Feature award at the world’s leading animation festival in Annecy, France in 2018. It had a limited cinema run in the U.S. last year, and is now available for home viewing.
Besides directing and doing all of the original storyboarding (animation was then completed in Cambodia, France, Luxembourg, and Belgium), Do co-wrote the screenplay. Though born in France, his parents are Cambodian, and Do based his script largely on stories told him by his mother.
Funan opens in Phnom Penh, 1975, on the eve of the Khmer Rouge’s conquest of Cambodia’s capital. We see an all-too-brief glimpse of middle-class normality, as Khoun returns home from work, kisses his wife Chou, and plays with their 3-year-old son Sovanh, before they sit down to a sumptuous dinner. A shift from upbeat pop to a grim news report on the radio signifies their happiness won’t last.
Quickly, this trio and their extended family are among the 1.5 million ordered to evacuate the city. In the rapid forced march through the countryside, Chou and Khoun are separated from their son and his grandmother, and their Communist escorts curtly forbid them at gunpoint to backpedal and search for their child.
The majority of Funan then bifurcates its storytelling into the perspectives of Chou (primarily) and Sovanh (to a lesser degree). Both end up in rural collectives: Chou and Khoun planting rice in paddies, abused by their guards for the slow pace of their efforts; Sovanh sitting bored through re-education classes, forbidden to name his parents as Dad and Mum.
In their march to the collective, the throngs must ford a land-mined river. Foreshadowing moral compromises to come, Khoun urges Chou to let other people walk ahead of them, after they see a couple of watery eruptions. Under their captors’ sadistic vigilance, any slight breach of rules is life-threatening: barely surviving on a sparse diet, Sovanh is horrified to watch a girl he befriends hide stolen food in her blouse.
When interviewed about his film, Denis Do candidly speaks of making artistic choices dictated by budgetary constraints. But simplicity becomes a virtue, as the two-dimensional human figures set against more elaborately drawn backgrounds are no less evocative of strong emotion. The contrast of human brutality with nature’s indifferent, enduring beauty – spacious sunsets over vast flat landscapes, ants trudging single file on a branch, a duck swimming with her ducklings – couldn’t be starker.
In addition, lacking funds to animate action sequences works to Do’s advantage. The cutaways from violence contain a force that more graphic depictions often miss. For example, Savanh witnesses a trio of silent men trudging to their execution; his observation of the actual deed is amply implied. (Do also relates that among the children of Khmer Rouge survivors, there was often a pissing contest to name the most horrific atrocity, a tendency he wanted to bypass.)
As Funan unfurls across a three year span, suspense is created merely by our trio’s fight for basic survival. In their primitive conditions, without medicine or doctor, relatives die from normally treatable diseases. Chou in particular becomes gaunter and weaker as the months pass.
Unsurprisingly, under such harrowing stress, the forced laborers turn on each other in petty squabbles. Perhaps surprisingly, and to his credit, Do individualizes the members of the Khmer Rouge. While cruel and murderous by and large, glimmers of decency rarely shine through, as when one guard attempts to help Chou locate her son.
By narrowing his storytelling focus, Do by no means gives an exhaustive history of the Khmer genocide that slaughtered 1.7-2.0 million Cambodians before it was over. Yet for generations that didn’t grow up reading of war in southeast Asia and its awful aftermath, Funan will serve as a powerful introduction. (And for Americans who then dig deeper, it’s sobering to remember that our nation supported Pol Pot’s genocidal regime for a time.)
During this film, we hear enough Khmer Rouge propaganda to rediscover the truth of the aphorism that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it surely rhymes. Like so many nationalist movements, the Khmers claim they will purify their land and restore its former glory (make Kampuchea great again?). Their ascription of godlike power and omniscience to the Party reminds us that worship – whether of fictional divinities, dear leaders, or an almighty party – tends to result in bloodshed.
(Image credit for star rating: Yasir72.multan CC BY-SA 3.0 )