Here's Inside Streaming's Lon Harris with a review of the animated film "Funan," now streaming on Netflix:
"Funan" is a heartbreaking story from the Cambodian civil war, based on the experiences of co-writer/director Denis Do's own mother during the infamous Khmer Rouge regime. The reign of this unthinkably cruel and authoritarian government ultimately led to the deaths of nearly 2 million Cambodians -- about 25% of the country's total population. It's been the subject of a number of notable films, including Roland Joffé's 1984 "The Killing Fields," which went on to win three Oscars.
While that film follows two journalists, and attempts to give Americans a more-or-less birds-eye view of the regime and its devastating impact on its native country, "Funan" is much more intimate and personal. We follow a couple -- Chou (Bérénice Bejo) and her husband Khoun (Louis Garrel) -- as they are forcefully evacuated from their home in Phnom Penh in 1975. During a grueling march through the countryside, they are separated from their son, Sovanh, and forbidden by guards to search for him. Over the next several years, they will endure a punishing new life while constantly looking for opportunities to escape and reunite their family.
A few things set the French-language "Funan" apart from the other films I've seen about this era in Cambodia (besides the fact that everyone speaks French). It's never more than a completely personal, ground-level take; one family's story as they navigate an extremely harsh new life under this repressive, brutal, propagandistic military government. There are no captions setting the action within a larger historical context. There are no expositional speeches explaining the conflict more generally, or what's now expected of the ordinary citizens who have been evicted from their homes and hometowns and forced to work in labor camps. We receive incomplete, perhaps unreliable information in the same mode as the characters: through whispers, and rumors, and stolen moments spent eavesdropping on guards.
I'll admit: I'm burying the lede. What really sets "Funan" apart from the other Khmer Rouge films of the past, and the vast majority of tragic wartime sagas more generally, is the fact that it's animated rather than filmed in live-action. It's a fascinating choice, as Do consistently sticks to natural realism in the storytelling. There are certainly individual shots that would have been difficult to achieve in live-action: a woman's reflection being perfectly reflected by a small puddle, perhaps, or a paddy filled with perfectly planed, geometric rice plants next to its more haphazardly organized twin. But unlike the most famous animated war film -- 1988's "Grave of the Fireflies" -- Do doesn't use the animation to reflect the characters' internal psyche. There are no visions or dreams in "Funan," no flights of fancy that take us out of the tragedy or give us insight into what characters are thinking. We watch and feel their struggle just as we would in a live-action movie.
The film is beautiful to look at, but also minimalist in its way, designed with simple lines and primary colors. We can't get caught up in dazzlingly animated Miyazaki-esque details or lost in dramatic landscapes. The harsh conditions and repetitive nature of life in a Khmer Rouge labor camp seemingly don't allow for such flourishes. It also manages to tell a tragic and even horrifying story with a minimum of on-screen violence or torment. Though we're given a thorough sense of the psychological terror instilled in the victims of the Khmer Rouge, Do understands that, sometimes, the subtle implication of off-screen bloodshed is all we need to see in order to understand.
Where to Watch: Netflix
Running time: 84 minutes
Genre: War drama
In French with English subtitles
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