Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime was responsible for the deaths of almost 2 million people between 1975 and 1979. Most of those deaths occurred in labor camps, where they were executed or succumbed to exhaustion, malnutrition, or disease. This period has served as the basis for a number of films, including the Oscar-winning The Killing Fields, the animated documentary The Missing Picture, Angelina Jolie’s First They Killed My Father, and now Denis Do’s animated feature Funan. The recipient of numerous awards, including the Cristal, the top prize given at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival, this emotionally powerful debut is based on meticulous research Do conducted, which included conversations with his mother, a survivor of the regime.
The movie opens in Phnom Penh on April 15, 1975, showing the everyday life of the city right before the Khmer Rouge took power. Our viewpoint characters are Chou (based on Do’s mother, voiced by Berenice Bejo), Khuon (Louis Garrel), and their family, including their four-year-old son Sovanh. Young, happy, and in love, their peaceful life is upended within moments. After one cut, their home and the streets of the city are empty, save for a few soldiers. The people are exiled and made to march outward, the communists proclaiming that they’re being saved from their impure capitalist lives. During their long journey, Sovanh is separated from his parents and ends up being placed in a different camp. Chou and Khuon become determined to survive and make their family whole again.
Though based on one of the greatest human rights tragedies of the past century, Funan mostly keeps explicit violence away from the audience. The one exception comes toward the end of the film, magnifying its impact. Do does not allow the hardships his mother and millions more endured to fall into sensationalism. That doesn’t mean we are completely spared from witnessing the atrocities. People left out in the rain are given a pitiful amount of food to eat. Sovanh sees a trio of men tied together, guns to their backs, as a grave is being prepared for them. Chou’s body wastes away over years of abuse and starvation. The film’s sound design emphasizes every tired step, desperate breath, every gun cocked and bullet fired.
Much like how Isao Takahata depicted Japan in the closing days and aftermath of World War II in his 1988 classic Grave of the Fireflies, Do uses animation to come to an understanding of a dark time in history. He does so without being didactic, and also refrains from making an easy “us vs. them” story. While Chou is the hero, we see her become hardened and cold, even lashing out at her husband for saving a Khmer soldier’s life. The soldiers could easily have been depicted as monolithic heartless monsters, but instead we often see where their humanity pierces their ideology.
The film’s background art by Michael Crouzat is at times quite stunning, forming a distinct contrast with the bleak events of the story. There are moments when Do pulls back so that we can see the scope of an event, but also take notice of Cambodia’s natural beauty. The film’s character design, while simple, serves to emphasize that while the Khmer members are a shade or two darker than Chou and the rest of the prisoners, they don’t look that dissimilar. No matter what side of the divide any person was on during this time, they were all of the same land, the same people.
In Funan, Do demonstrates not just an appreciation of the kind of stories animation can tell, but also an understanding of how people can hold onto their humanity even in the most dire of circumstances. Even though we could have every reason to hate or mistrust someone, when we see a person in need, the most human thing we can do is offer a helping hand. This film is a beautiful and moving tribute not just to Do’s mother, but also to Cambodia and its people.
Funan continues in screenings at select theaters nationwide this summer.