Depicting life under Cambodia’s brutal Khmer Rouge regime in harrowing detail, Funan tells the story of one family that lived through years of separation, starvation and forced labor while trying to maintain a semblance of hope. It’s not an easy subject for an animated film, and this one is probably more suitable for adults and teenagers than children, yet director Denis Do manages to make such a difficult story feel both personal (it was inspired by the life of his mother) and emotional. Despite some narrative cliches, the painstaking way that the movie documents a very dark period in Cambodian history is a noteworthy achievement, and one that should find interest overseas after winning the top prize at Annecy.
The film begins April 17, 1975: the day Pol Pot’s army captured Phnom Penh, forcing millions out of the capital city and into work camps in the countryside, where they were to sustain the new communist power through backbreaking agricultural labor. Among those deported are young parents Chou (voiced by Berenice Bejo) and Khoun (Louis Garrel), who are driven from their home with their 4-year-old son, Sovanh. Obliged to walk for weeks with little food along a perilous route — including through rivers laced with landmines — Chou and Khoun lose sight of their little boy and are unable to turn back to get him. They won’t see him again for several years.
Do and co-writer Magali Pouzol use the couple’s quest to reunite with Sovanh as a framing device to explore the quotidian cruelty of the Khmer Rouge labor camps, where a large majority of the Cambodian population would remain imprisoned until the regime fell in early 1979. Forced to work the fields day and night while living in squalor, Chou, Khoun and the other people in their camp are reduced to slave status, fighting for scraps of food and doing whatever else they can to survive another day.
Art director Michael Crouzat (key animator on Despicable Me) portrays events in colorfully realistic clear-line drawings, with particular attention paid to the Cambodian landscape. Indeed, there’s a kind of aesthetic paradox at play here as we see Chou and Khoun suffer amid a series of stunning backdrops, toiling away in endless rice paddies turned gold by the setting sun. The beauty and immensity only underline the couple’s helpless situation, as well as the fact that they are only two people among many millions being subjected to the same inescapable fate.
As the years go by, Do reveals how the Khmer Rouge gradually drives people to disease, starvation, suicide and murder, while executing anyone considered an enemy of the state. Meanwhile, we follow Sovanh’s trajectory as a boy being raised along with other children — most of them removed from their families — in a camp where he undergoes communist indoctrination and, later on, the start of military training (a subject covered in Angelina Jolie’s 2017 film, First They Killed My Father).
Eventually, the narrative lines do finally cross, although the way Do brings it all together feels a tad contrived — especially in the film’s rather Hollywood-like ending. But mostly, Funan is a compellingly dark and accurate look at a major 20th century atrocity, showing what it was like to experience it firsthand as a broken family. The extreme emphasis on detail — such as in the image of scattered grains of rice that are meant to feed several people or a scene where we see Sovanh playing in a desecrated temple filled with pigs — helps convey the unbearable reality of the Khmer Rouge’s reign, adding another significant layer to a memorial that’s still in the making.
Production companies: Les Films d’ici, Bac Cinema, Lunanime
Cast: Berenice Bejo, Louis Garrel
Director: Denis Do
Screenwriters: Denis Do, Magali Pouzol, with the participation of Elise Trinh
Producers: Sebastien Onomo, David Grumbach, Annemie Degryse, Louise Genis Cosserat, Justin Stewart
Composer: Thibault Kientz Agyeman
Art and graphics director: Michael Crouzat
Sales: Bac Films