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GOCRITIC! Animafest Zagreb 2019

GoCritic! Review: Funan


- Our Dutch participant reviews the film which has just received a special mention from the jury at Animafest Zagreb

GoCritic! Review: Funan
Funan by Denis Do

History has known many regimes and political figures who have promised a better future for the citizens of their countries. Some have succeeded while others have failed dramatically, their promises for the future ending in deception and desctruction. Denis Do’s animated film Funan [+see also:
film review
interview: Denis Do
film profile
(France/Belgium/Luxembourg/Cambodia) depicts the rise, the rule and the fall of the Khmer Rouge, based on his mother’s testimony. The Khmer Rouge professed the era to be a golden age in Cambodia, but it rapidly turned into a nightmare, claiming between 1.7 and 2 million victims. After screening in the Grand Competition - Feature Film at the 29th edition of Animafest Zagreb last week, the film received a special mention from the jury.

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Funan begins with a peaceful depiction of ordinary daily life in a Cambodian village during the 1970s. Images of children playing on the streets, people buying their groceries at the market and women cooking large meals for their family are accompanied by oriental music featuring flutes and string instruments. This idyllic picture soon turns grim when the radio announces a coup organised by the Khmer Rouge. It is 17 April, 1975 and around 1.5 million people will have to leave their homes in exchange for vague promises: a good life in a purified country, free from capitalism and Western influences. City inhabitants are forced to work in labour camps in the countryside, where they’re deprived of their modern possessions (such as cars) and their personal identity. They have to wear the same uniform and get the same haircut because “everybody is the same,” according to the Khmer Rouge soldiers.

The story is told from the perspective of Chou - Sovanh’s mother and Khuon’s wife - who is the heart of the family. They’re forced to leave their hometown and, during their exhausting journey, Chou and Khuon lose Sovanh in the crowd. Soldiers forbid them from searching for him and force them to move on. They’re told that they will be reunited soon when, in actual fact, they won’t see their son for years.

Funan follows Chou and her family throughout this period. The film is divided into four parts under four separate dates. Months go by and the living conditions of the labourers working for “Angkar” (meaning “the organisation”, the name the Khmer Rouge used until Pol Pot announced the official forming of the Communist Party of Kampuchea) only get worse. The film shows how they are brainwashed by propagandist ideas, how they are told encouraging stories, how they are humiliated, how they have to work hard on empty stomachs, how they aren’t able to see their families or, even worse, how they see their families suffer. Those who refuse to serve Angkar are punished both physically and psychologically. Is it normal that the Khmer Rouge ask so much of Cambodia’s citizens in order to purify the nation? It’s not a question physically asked by the labourers, but it certainly hangs in the air.

Funan places a strong focus on nature: the natural environment is beautifully animated by way of 2D computer graphics. For the daytime scenes, Do paints the sky, the water and the grass in very bright colours. This creates a kind of hopeful atmosphere which not only contrasts sharply with the harsh situation of the labourers, but also with the tortured states of their minds, bodies and souls.

The nocturnal scenes, conversely, are rather dark and ominous, emphasising the horrors which the labourers are living through. While the rain is pouring, people die either throughstarvation, illness, a bullet in the back or suicide. Chou, however, stays strong as she loses everyone she loves. Serving Angkar does exhaust and starve her, but it also makes her more determined and combativethan ever. No matter how or when, she is determined to find her son. Do presents Chou as a strong female figure, a heroine, a survivor of this terrible episode in Cambodian history, the effects of which are still evident today and will forever remain a scar on the nation's body.

Funan doesn’t judge but rather tries to understand what happened during the Khmer Rouge regime, which lasted for four years. The film shows that the situation wasn’t all black and white. Funan isn’t about who’s right and who’s wrong, but rather it gives an idea about how life actually was in the forced labour camps, while trying to make sense of some ofthe characters' actions. It’s impossible, however, not to feel pity for Chou and her family, and quite incredible how Chou manages to express empathy of any kind towards the Khmer Rouge soldiers, as happens at one point in the film.

As an animated film about the Khmer Rouge, Funan is a welcome and creative addition to the family of live-action movies and documentaries focusing on this regime (such as Roland Joffé’s The Killing Fields from 1984 and the many films by the Cambodian documentarian Rithy Panh). It was a conscious decision on Do’s part to make an animated film on the revolution. According to the press notes, in addition to his general passion for animation, he felt that this form was the best possible medium for providing the audience with a nuanced perspective of reality. Thanks to animation, Do has been able to make a realistic film that leaves room for audience interpretation whilst giving viewers an insight into this regime and how it affected people’s lives. Moreover, he didn’t want the character of his mother played by an actress because he wanted to tell a personal story about her life. With a drawn representation of his mother, he prevented his story about a Cambodian woman who survived the Khmer Rouge regime from becoming a generic offering. Instead, his film is a heartfelt homage to this woman and to the strength of her fellow survivors.

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