The mainstream perception that animated films are intended for children still make films like Persepolis, Grave of the Fireflies, and the newly released Funan come across as anomalies. The medium would seem to lend itself to lighter fare to the point that when it’s used to tackle war and inherited trauma, it comes as an innate shock.
Filmmaker Denis Do, born and raised in France, is of mixed French, Chinese, and Cambodian heritage, and drew upon his mother’s memories of living under the Khmer Rouge regime, as well as nearly two decades of research, to write Funan. Elegantly and simply animated, the film still conveys that weight, depicting the horrors of the Khmer Rouge revolution without coming off as exploitative or otherwise gratuitous.
The thread tying the film together is a family’s struggle to survive and reunite. Chou (voiced by Bérénice Bejo, and based on Do’s mother) and her husband Khoun (Louis Garrel) find themselves separated from their 4-year-old son and, as they’re moved from labor camp to labor camp, more and more of their family members. They plan to flee to Thailand, but not before they’ve found their son.
The atrocities that the family endure — torture, rape, execution, with some characters even being driven to suicide — are largely left off-screen. Do almost always cuts away, conveying what has occurred through other means, such as the sound of a gunshot or a close-up on an observing character’s expression of horror. When Do finally makes such violence explicit, it’s even more jarring, particularly given the stylized, simplified aesthetics of the animation.
Beyond the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, Do suggests that extreme conditions will corrupt and twist even those closest to a survivor. Everybody is doing what they think they need to in order to stay alive, which includes selling out to various degrees, and pushing others to self-sacrifice for the supposed collective good. None of the characters are free from selfishness as days turn to months turn to years, cruelty springing out of resentment and suffering.
Through it all, however, the characters are framed in beautiful landscapes. The film’s color palette is always vibrant, the simply-shaded characters moving against gorgeously shaded backdrops that go some way towards suggesting the filmmaker’s relationship to Cambodia itself. The Khmer Rouge regime drove his family out of the country and nearly killed them in the process, but a connection to and love for the land itself remains.
Though Do never approaches true feel-good territory, Funan feels beholden to the need for a more traditional happy ending. The last few scenes feel almost convenient, slightly undermining the otherwise bold, realistic storytelling. Life isn’t as clean-cut as the direction in which the film begins to lean.
The details of the film also hint at just how much there is to cover — and remains under-recognized and under-explored in cinema — when it comes to the Cambodian genocide. That the Khmer Rouge almost all have darker skin than their prisoners, or exactly what the context was that led to the revolution, go unaddressed as Do focuses on the family story. That lack of further exploration isn’t to the film’s detriment (at just an hour and a half, it’s already remarkably deep for how slim in style and length it is), but becomes more glaring as the film concludes with simplicity.
Still, Funan is a piercing, personal look at historical events and the overall effects of war, and the medium through which it’s told is a surprisingly effective one. The live recreation of such circumstances is a tricky field, as seen in films such as The Act of Killing or its companion piece The Look of Silence, and countless movies about war have exploited real suffering. Funan never crosses that line, matching beauty with terror.
Funan is out now in limited theaters.