Film Review: Funan (2018)

I tend not to cry when watching films. For one reason or another, I always end up unscathed, with no tears streaming down my face even after watching one of the most heart wrenching stories. 

Funan, Denis Do's debut feature, has broken that cycle. 

The word "Funan" was the name of the first important Hindu kingdom in Southeast Asia, an ancient state in Cambodia which is believed to have risen in the 1st Century AD. Today, the region is better known as covering parts of Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia. This word directly connects Funan the film to the historical event it is portraying. 

Funan is an honest and brutal portrayal of life under the communist Khmer Rouge regime, told through the eyes of a broken family. Recently, it was part of the lineup in the Cambodian International Film Festival, which was held from March 9th to 15th 2019. This was chosen, rightfully so, as it is a piece of history which should be remembered and a story which should be watched.

Funan takes places from April 17th, 1975—the day Khmer Rouge seized Phnom Penh (capital of Cambodia)—to early 1979, when they were forced to retreat due to Vietnamese forces. The film follows protagonists, Chuo (Bérénice Bejo) and Khoun (Louis Garrel), a married couple, in the strenuous four-year battle against the world around them, all the while separated from and searching for their young son, Sovahn. Chuo is based on Do’s own mother, who lived through the Khmer Rouge regime and whom the film is sensibly dedicated to.

It’s a frightening rendition of one of the most horrific massacres in recent history and painfully reflects the negative side of human nature, which will hopefully one day cease to be relevant.

Denis Do, the film's director, was born in Paris, France in 1985. He has a passion for animation. Funan is the story of his personal history. He makes the choice to focus on the humanity of the people involved in the Khmer Rouge regime. Inspired by his mother's journey, his debut feature is a true hit.

While it is an animated film, one would not really consider Funan as family-friendly. A showing to a child would require them to be mature and for many difficult questions to be answered. It’s harrowing to watch the characters have to deal with the unfair torture they are subjected to and having their status lowered from citizens to slaves. However, the choice to tell the story not in live-action but using animation is a beneficial and effective one. 

Funan dives into interiority and conveys the paradoxes of the character's souls. The soft and realistic style is honest and bares it all, but provides a safe distance between the viewer and the story. Funan’s source matter is already incredibly hard to take in; if it were live-action, it may well have been too difficult for many to digest. Throughout the film, the torturous experiences which the protagonists go through are juxtaposed against the beautiful natural background in which the story takes place. The beguiling setting makes the pain the characters experience so much more heartbreaking.

Bejo and Garrel both deliver standout performances and are able to capture the voices of their characters beautifully. Their vocal work is emotionally striking and both tone and inflection are utilised heavily to effectively portray Khuon and Chuo’s parallel journeys. Their characters are able to find spare moments of intimacy, with Khuon blowing Chuo’s ear from behind her. This becomes a motif which returns throughout the story, each time reminding the audience of the Khuon and Chuo’s positions within the story. Watching them both visibly decay over the seemingly never ending four years is torturous. But it is their strength in surviving this dire situation which makes their story so powerful. 

Throughout the film, Do has chosen to cut away from violent acts. Funan never explicitly depicts violence, but instead implies death using sound and reaction. While this is sometimes confusing and can break the flow of the scene, it does not detract from the film’s power. The choice might have been to focus the attention on the effect of violence on the people who succeed it or let the audience fill in the blanks. Either way, it hides the explicit torture which people went through, and chooses instead to see how this torture affected the ones who survived.

The audience is asked to follow along each character's journey and, if you do, you won't be disappointed. Every character is affected by the world which they reside in, not only in a direct way but in an indirect, subliminal manner. Funan does not necessarily leave the viewer on a positive note. When the credits roll, you know the survivors will have to work long and hard to rebuild their lives. This takes a lifetime. But it is a lifetime earned and fought for.

Overall, Funan is a powerfully honest and beautifully brutal recount of the Khmer Rouge rule over Cambodia and its effect on the people subjected to the regime. A testament to the fact that animation can be used to tell powerful stories, it forces the viewer to take a few moments out of their day and think about the pain which we inflict upon one another. It’s a story which deserves not to be forgotten; you literally cannot just walk away from Funan. 

It's definitely worth a watch. After all, it made me cry.

- Valerie Tan
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