Parenting is so bourgeoisie. Under the Khmer Rouge, there was no need for such old-fashioned capitalist conventions. They took care of child-rearing, splitting up families for years. It was cradle-to-grave socialism, with an emphasis on the grave. Chou and Khuon will try to survive the camps and endure years of separation from their young son Sovanh in Cambodian-French filmmaker Denis Do’s remarkable animated feature Funan, which opens today in New York.
Chou and Khuon never really saw the rise of Angkor coming, but there is very little they could have done to prepare. Like everyone else, they suddenly found themselves on a forced march from Phnom Penh to the countryside. In the chaos, they lose sight of Sovanh, but that hardly matters to the Khmer Rouge guards, because they would have been split up soon enough anyway. However, Chou finds absolutely no solace in that fact. She bitterly resents Khuon’s acquiescence, insisting he should have deserted their cadre to find their son. Their relationship will fray, but they still must stick together to have any hope of survival.
Funan is visually stunning and emotionally devastating. Do uses the lush, verdant Cambodian landscapes as an ironic (and enormously cinematic) counterpoint to the cruelty and madness that surrounds his characters. Family members die with grim regularity, but it just rips your heart out each time it happens. Technically, Do keeps most of the violence off-screen, but certainly not the suffering and tragedy.
The artistry of Do and his team of animators is so clearly evident, nobody could seriously deny it. Instead, some critics uncomfortable with Funan’s forthrightness have tagged it “cliched,” but the truth is quite the contrary. Chou and Khuon do not suffer nobly and stoically. They hurt each other and act badly, but still remain bound by love. Really, this is an unusually honest and complex portrayal of human emotions under extreme and prolonged stress.
In all honesty, if GKIDS does not finally win an Oscar with Funan than the Academy should just level with everyone and change their name to “The Official Disney/Pixar Awards.” It is an important and, in some ways, timely film (considering the recent vogue for socialism among millennials and presidential candidates), but it is even more fundamentally a work of great artistic merit and humanism.
(As an aside, Do previously made The Ribbon, an achingly beautiful and tragic four-minute short film set amid Mao’s Great Leap Forward. Hopefully, GKIDS can pair them together at some screenings, as they have sometimes done with their shorter features, because both films truly deserve to be seen.)
Regardless, this is genuinely vibrant animation, in service of a deeply haunting film. Very highly recommended, Funan opens today (6/7) in New York, at the IFC Center.