Funan Review

Cambodia, April 1975. A mother’s world is turned upside-down. One moment, Chou is enjoying a warm family meal in the thriving capital of Phnom Penh. Another moment, plates and dishes are toppled and no family is to be found. The city is emptied, save for soldiers and smoke. We learn that an evacuation has taken place. The citizens walk in line toward the mismanaged labor camps that will overwork and starve them. Soldiers purge Chou’s middle-class family of declared “impurities”—their car, their clothing—chop their hair, and force them to labor in camps that starve and torture them. Complaints, exhaustion, and sorrow, and rage are seen as signs of disposability. Souls around Chou start falling or vanishing.  

Released in Annecy last year to acclaim and awards, director and writer Denis Do forged Funan, his animated feature film debut, from the testimonies of his mother and other survivors of the Khmer Rouge’s regime and its heinous societal experiment to create a classless agrarian society. 

Chou’s distress deepens when her 4-year-old son, Sovanh, is separated from them and his absence becomes a source of anxiety. As the mother mourns, her lost son experiences his camp in sequences of idyllic innocence fraught with shadows. He barely has a vocabulary to grasp the disintegration around him. In a delicate cut, Sovanh observes ducks with his grandmother. Then she glances at a truck of blindfolded prisoners. When Sovanh’s glances once more, his grandmother has vanished. We know she was taken to a killing field.

Incisive cuts like these compress the specific visual brutalities into imagined terrors. Do wields the animation medium to suggest violence without diluting intensity. Think of Nora Twomey’s kid-friendlier The Breadwinner, where carnage is more suggested than shown. The film focuses on glances at violence rather than the bloody impact. Do cuts away from ghastly scenes—away from burnings, mutilations, rape—to deny the audience voyeuristic violence. The script sprinkles a few pieces of historical context in bits of dialogue—fear of Western influences, class disgruntlement, the reach of propaganda–but the savagery masquerading as order is owed little explanation.

Funan is defined by the succession of suffering and trauma. If physical separation isn’t traumatic enough, Chou and her family can disagree on the Catch-22s of survival, such as Chou refusing the pity rations from a young soldier (implied to be an adolescent shanghaied into service) while her mother devours them. Chou also witnesses determination disintegrating into desperation, as her mother utters slut-shaming comments about a fellow laborer who sleeps with soldiers for food. But then her mother later makes a proposition to her youngest daughter to seduce her rapist for aid. Naturally, devastation follows.

Funan might be too visually modest to be an expressive memorable masterpiece in the vein of other war-backdropped animated films like Grave of the Fireflies or Persepolis. At times, more substance could be rendered in its characters, sketched from their suffering rather than realized with personalities. But its sensitive storytelling deftly illuminates the fatigue of morale and emaciation of dignity in times of trauma. By the time Chou’s journey moves forward from the horrors, the human spirit prevails but remains in tatters.

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10

Funan is currently playing in limited release in the United States.

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About the Author

Caroline Cao is a Houstonian native and writer of movie reviews and essays, Star Wars thoughts, screenplays, plays and fanfiction. She loves herself some oodles of noodles and student discounted Broadway shows.