Review: Funan (2018)

Funan (2018)

Directed by: Denis Do | 84 minutes | animation | Original voice cast: Bérénice Bejo, Louis Garrel, Colette Kieffer, Aude-Laurence Clermont Biver, Brice Montagne, Franck Sasonoff, Hervé Sogne, Maxime Baudoin, Tom Trouffier, Lila Lacombe, Emilie Marié

Rice fields as far as the eye can see, a dotted pattern of rice plants to the horizon. It is not a picture of abundance but of famine, of mass murder through exhaustion and malnutrition. It is a recurring image in ‘Funan’ (2018), an animated film about the period 1975 to 1979 in Cambodia. The period in which the Khmer Rouge was in power and exposed the population to a combination of extreme Maoism and horrific ultra-nationalism.

‘Funan’ leaves the political background of this history for what it is and zooms in on human tragedy. Chou’s family and her husband are deported to the countryside along with crowds of other townspeople. There they must renounce modern Western life and convert to the “honest” peasant life glorified by the Khmer Rouge. Along the way, they are stripped of their possessions and their dignity, and in the day-long marches Chou also becomes separated from her son Sovanh.

Sovanh is only four years old and ends up in a camp especially for children. Chou is not allowed to visit her son, the Khmer Rouge has abolished traditional family ties — words like mother and father are no longer allowed — and has replaced it with allegiance to Angkar (“the Organization”). Any form of responsibility to the other is hard to find, self-reliance is the key word and everyone hides behind Angkar. Blind faith in Angkar is the answer to all questions. Chou and her husband don’t give up and in the years that follow they fight to survive and be united with their son.

The power of animation is that it can capture reality in a few striking lines, we fill in the rest ourselves. It is the simplicity with which ‘Funan’ turns an incomprehensibly horrific history that is the Cambodian genocide into a universal and emotionally manageable story about family ties and human suffering. The downside is that the development of this story is very much on track; ‘Funan’ could have been a bit more surprising.

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