Beginning in 1975, the Khmer Rouge unleashed a reign of terror across Cambodia, killing between 1.7 and 2 million Cambodians, and exiling more. The horrific period unfolds from the perspective of a Cambodian family in Funan, the debut feature from Cambodian-French filmmaker, Denis Do.
The French-language animated film — which makes its Pittsburgh premiere at Row House Cinema — focuses on Chou (voiced by Bérénice Bejo), who becomes separated from her young son, Sovanh, in the chaos of the Khmer Rouge revolution. Along with her husband, Khuon (Louis Garrel), and several other relatives, Chou vows to survive the atrocities of a work camp in order to reunite with Sovanh, who witnesses his own version of the regime’s crimes.
Defined by a clean, illustrative style and slow-burn storytelling, Funan depicts the characters’ maddening crawl towards death, either by starvation or illness, even when execution is avoided by any means necessary. The overwhelming sense of danger builds enough tension to carry the story to its poetic climax.
In a statement, Do describes the film as directly inspired by his own mother, who survived the Khmer Rouge before migrating to France, where Do was born. The choice to use suggestive imagery that only hints at the nightmarish acts, rather than wallowing in the gory details, teeters on flinching away from modern Cambodia’s darkest days. But perhaps that’s the point for Do, who, in producing a deeply personal story, would rather not exploit the unimaginable ordeal through which his own mother lived.
The film is also all too relevant in a time when refugees and migrants in Syria, Myanmar, and on the U.S.-Mexico border now face their own horrors — only this time, social media and the news cycle won’t let us look away.