‘Funan’ details Cambodian genocide with stunning animation

Set in the 1975 Khmer Rouge revolution, Funan is the animated story of a Cambodian woman’s desperate search for her young son. Debuting director Denis Do (who co-writes with Magali Pouzol) recreates a dark, destructive world using an imaginative medium. (BKP: 4/5)

Review by Vice President and Managing Editor Brigid K. Presecky

Opening with the stunningly detailed animation of a small home in Cambodia, we meet Chou – the wife of Khuon, the mother of four-year-old Sovanh and the beloved member of her extended family. We’re brought into their kitchen and their seemingly peaceful way of life until a brutal regime quickly intervenes. The Khmer Rouge, the real-life mass murderers responsible for one of the worst killings of the 20th Century, overtakes the Cambodian government – and in Funan, separates this family.

After being forcibly removed from their home, Chou is separated from her son and is forbidden to try and find him. Viewers follow along on the family’s painstaking journey as they leave their home and become threatened into subservient roles. In an interesting twist of perspective, however, we also see the traumatic experience through the eyes of young Sovanh.

By using a tilted angle upwards to make the world look wider, bigger and scarier than it already is, the animators set a tone of a gutting fear throughout the feature. And perhaps this is the intention of director Denis Do, a French, Chinese and Cambodian filmmaker whose own mother was the inspiration for Funan. Using both research and memories of his own family, Do creates an intensely personal story and, in doing so, reflects the millions of heartbreaking stories during the Cambodian genocide.

The animation itself can create a cognitive dissonance where a viewer might not be expecting a story like this to depict a gruesome reality (with unreal humans). Sure, dark animation is nothing new as it dates back to the beginning of fairy tales. However, this story is not a fairy tale. It would be the equivalent of an animated retelling of the September 11 terror attacks or hand-drawn reimagination of the Holocaust. The uneasiness can take away from the filmmakers’ best intentions of telling a good story.

Nevertheless, Do and Pouzol balance the harsh reality faced by the Cambodian people with the bond between family members. It shows how a family, hand-in-hand, faces trials with a willingness to keep going. Taking the universal theme of a mother’s love against the backdrop of the Cambodian-Vietnamese war – and animating it – makes Funan an admirable feat. 

Funan has won top prizes at the Annecy Animation Festival and the Animation in Film Festival.

© Brigid K. Presecky (8/13/19) FF2 Media

Photos: Funan

Photo credit: Les Films d’Ici, Bac Cinéma, Lunanime 

Q: Does Funan pass the Bechdel-Wallace test?

Technically, no.

Tags: FF2 Media

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Brigid Presecky began her career in journalism at Chicago's Goodman Theatre. In 2008, she joined FF2 Media as a part-time film critic and multimedia editor. Receiving her Bachelor of Arts degree in Communications from Bradley University, she moved to Los Angeles where she worked in development, production and publicity for Berlanti Productions, Entertainment Tonight and Warner Bros. Studios, respectively. Returning to her journalistic roots in Chicago, she is now a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and certified Rotten Tomatoes Film Critic.
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