Denis Do’s animation feature film “Funan” tells us a dark but ultimately poignant tale of human cruelty and resilience. Loosely inspired by Do’s family history associated with the Khmer Rouge revolution in Cambodia during the late 1970s, the movie often horrifies us as glimpsing into that barbaric period, but it still engages us as calmly observing its main character’s desperate struggle for survival, and its resulting emotional power is more than enough for compensating its notable shortcomings.
After the opening scene showing how things were happy and pleasant for a young boy and his parents and other family members in Phnom Penh in 1975, the film promptly switches to when the city is subsequently seized by the Khmer Rouge army. Millions of citizens including that young boy and his big family are forced to leave the city, and that is just the beginning of their long and grueling journey across the rural regions outside the city.
At first, the situation does not seem that bad for the boy and his family, but it does not take much time for his parents to realize what is really going on. Although they and many other civilians were told that they are simply going to be relocated to rural villages for their ‘reeducation’ process, they are not provided with any food or water throughout their ongoing journey, and they are not even allowed to use cars or any other vehicles for moving their luggages.
When they are about to reach to what is supposed to be their final destination, the cruel intentions of the Khmer Rouge regime become quite more apparent to them than before. They are forced to cross a river riddled with mines at one point, and then the Khmer Rouge soldiers take away any valuable stuffs from them at a gathering spot. At least, the boy’s family luckily hide most of their precious assets from the soldiers, and it looks like they may get some help from a soldier who is a distant cousin of theirs.
However, the boy happened to be separated from his family along with his grandmother, and his parents are certainly devastated when they come to learn later that their son and his grandmother were taken to another camp which is a little far from the one to which they and many others are assigned. They plead to that cousin more than once, but, not so surprisingly, it turns out that there is really nothing that cousin, who is a rather simple-minded but decent man, can do at his position for now.
What follows next is not so far from what is depicted in “The Killing Fields” (1984), “The Missing Picture” (2013), and “First They Killed My Father” (2017). Along with the other family members, the boy’s parents have to endure lots of terrible things including long hours of forced labor, and they accordingly experience and witness how desperate people can be as driven by famine and despair. In case of one woman, she was willing to do anything for those nasty soldiers watching over her and others in the camp because she simply wants to survive along with her little son, and we later get a harrowing moment when that woman asks one of the main characters to take care of her little son not long before her last breath.
While the boy’s parents are constantly worried about their son’s whereabouts and safety, the film shows us how he manages to survive day by day with some care and protection from his grandmother. While he is treated a bit better just like many other kids around his age in his camp, they are all subjected to a reeducation process for brainwashing them, but the boy’s attention is usually drawn to a little girl he comes to like a lot.
He also encounters a number of atrocities, which the film wisely chooses not to show directly to us. In case of a short but undeniably chilling scene where the boy watches soldiers taking several people to the middle of a rice paddy at one night, the film does not depict what happens next, but that is more than enough for us to say the least.
The screenplay by Do and his co-writers Magali Pouzol and Elise Trinh loses some of its narrative momentum as alternating between its two main storylines a bit too often, and the finale, which mainly revolves around a dangerous escape across the border between Cambodia and Thailand, is quite melodramatic as expected, but the film still holds our attention via its fine cell animation style. Despite its rather slow narrative pacing, we find ourselves gradually involved more in its main characters’ situations as occasionally admiring small fleeing moments of beauty, which make a striking contrast with those numerous dark scenes throughout the film. Although it is initially rather distracting to hear the characters in the film speaking in French, the main cast members including Bérénice Bejo and Louis Garrel are effective in their voice performance, and Bejo and Garrel bring some personality and humanity to their respective roles.
While it does not reach to the level of the aforementioned works about the Cambodian genocide, “Funan” is as sincere and respectful as intended by its director, and I appreciate its good moments even though I could sense the considerable distance between him and the story itself. Although he did not experience that grim period unlike his mother and older brother, Do honestly tries to give a heartfelt tribute to what his family went through, and he admirably succeeds as far as I can see.