“Funan” is a lesson in history and story-telling

The only good thing that might be coming out of this pandemic is a surge of adult-oriented animated shows and movies that are being planned. Ones that don’t rely on sex jokes or topical references or just have no reason to exist. (I’m looking at you, Star Trek: Lower Decks.) And I hope we’ll get more animated period dramas, documentary-style and biographical movies.

There are a lot of interesting ones out there, I’ve always liked Persepolis and Waltz with Bashir. Both of these films are highly stylized and use the medium to its fullest potential. Notably, both of these are biographies and reflect the way the main character was seeing the world.

The subject of this review, Funan, isn’t a biography but is based on the director’s mother’s experience living under the Khmer Rouge regime in 1975. This film could have easily been live-action and nothing would have changed. But I think something would have been lost.

The movie focuses on a woman named Chou living in Phnom Penh during the Khmer Rouge revolution. She lives with her husband Khuon, mother and children – the youngest of whom, Sovanh, is four. They’re forced out of the city by the Khmer and on their way to a work camp, Sovanh and his grandmother become separated from the rest of the family.

Unable to search for her child, Chou and the rest of the family have to survive against a brutal Communist dictatorship that forces them to work day and night, with very little food. Sovanh and seemingly dozens of other children are being brainwashed into becoming loyal to the regime -though they’re still struggling to survive.

Neither group has any way of knowing for sure if the others are alive. The main group is constantly being moved around – and though there are escape attempts and attempts to find Sovanh, none are successful and the other members begin to die, one by one as do their allies.

Years later, as the revolution ends and the Cambodian-Vietnamese War begins, Chuo and Khuon – the only members left – decided to look for Sovanh one last time. Chuo and Sovanh are the only survivors at the end, but they make it safely into Thailand where they can be free/

Throughout the film, we see Sovanh trying to survive with the help of a nameless girl. She eventually sacrifices herself so that Sovanh can survive.

It’s not a very happy movie, but I think you already figured that part out.

Intertwining Tales

The main focus of the story is on Chou and her perspective.

Sovanh’s story is more of a B-plot and probably doesn’t even get half as much screen time as the family, but this works in the movie’s favor. After all, it is Chou’s story. She has no idea what her son is going through.

Most of her story is focused on her being enslaved and forced to plant rice, something that she as a city dweller knows nothing about. The regime uses her lack of skill as a reason to deny her food, and nobody wants to help her. Because when people do help, it never turns out well.

The family is forced to give up most of their valuables when they reach the first labor camp, smuggle the rest in and then give it up when one of the older children falls ill, so they can somehow find medical treatment. It is unsuccessful.

Sovanh befriends a girl in his camp, who shows him how to sneak rations, hunt frogs and find a few small joys in their horrible situation. Unfortunately, she ends up sacrificing herself so Sovanh can escape during an attempt to steal food. She couldn’t have been more than six at the time.

During this whole time, the family keeps being told that their son is safe and the regime is taking care of him, so they don’t need to be reunited. It’s hard to know what Chou actually believed – from my perspective, I wouldn’t even trust that the kid was even in the regime’s custody.

For all they knew, Sovanh could have been dead for ages, or they had him mixed up with another child, and he was much further away than they thought. They were certain that no matter where he was, he was being exposed to the same horrors they were.

It’s harder to know how Sovanh thought of his situation. He doesn’t speak until the end of the movie where he’s reunited with his parents. So, I don’t even think he really understood what was going on.

It’s a deliberate narrative choice – since his scenes have no dialogue, we’re able to get the sense of what life was like for the average child separated from their parents during this time. Being exposed to propaganda, being starved, banned from showing affection, forced to work all day, and not even given much of education beyond “Foreign influences are bad.”

Towards the end of the movie, things get a little confusing. Years pass, Chou and Khuon seem to have been separated for some length of time as he finds her in a makeshift hospital and tells Chou he found Sovanh.

But they still have to search for him. I assume he was told where Sovanh’s camp was located and he had proof that his son was still alive. This could have been just me perhaps not paying enough attention at the moment, or the film itself not being clear or a combination of both.

I’d like to thank the American public education system for that. We never learned about the Khmer Rouge in any history class. I had to do research to make sure I had my facts straight in this review.

The closest I’ve gotten is studying cultural Marxism in…almost every single class at my private liberal arts college. But the only thing I really remember from all of that is that a young Josef Stalin, whose writings influenced the Khmer Rouge looked exactly like how I would expect a modern, Stalinist, pseudo-male feminist college student to look like.

You know – the one who looks like a character in Rent and says that poor people should go vegan, but always owns the latest iPhone, spends all of his summers taking trips to poor countries for selfies and wants to be in an open relationship but doesn’t want his girlfriend to date, other guys.

But I better stop before I go even more off tangent.

Confusing Characters

The one issue I had with this film, which could have been my fault, was that I really didn’t know who was who and how everyone was related. I had no idea who the siblings were until after I finished watching the film and did research. I assumed they were relatives but I didn’t think they were Chou and Khuon’s children. They seemed too old for that.

I thought they were possibly cousins.

I don’t really remember hearing their names spoken, or getting an idea of how old they were. Also, I felt as though their personalities were so underdeveloped that I couldn’t really tell one from the other. I think that reducing the number of siblings could have helped.

Especially since the film also introduces Sok, a cousin who is loyal to the regime. He doesn’t give his relatives any special privileges and seems to truly believe the Khmer Rouge are doing good, but that doesn’t make him a monster. In the end, he does choose to help his family over the new government.

I would have really liked to see one of the other family members become radicalized so that we can see how the process worked and how innocent people decided to join. Surely, that must have happened.

But all the other characters, aside from the family, particularly those that try to help – only seem to exist to be tragic characters who die trying to do the right thing. But I imagine that’s the way things were.

Based on Experience

Though not an exact retelling, this movie is based on the director’s mother’s experiences during this time. Denis Do said, “The movie immerses us into the lives of normal people, exhausted by suffering. It doesn’t judge nor blame, it tries to understand. Because understanding is the first step on a long road to forgiveness.”

Since Do wasn’t even alive during the time of the revolution, I think Sovanh is a purely fictional character meant to represent all the children separated from their families. The film also comments that everybody has a brother named Sovanh, which means the poor kid could be anyone.

It’s a universal story.

This movie could be any family. And I appreciate that about the film; the film could have been very specific and focused on a real person’s story and been made as accurate as possible. And that would have been fine. It would have been very personal – and I think with stories like that, people get mired in the details and accuracy of the story, as opposed to a fictional family where you don’t have to get the exact details right and risk complaints from the family about their depiction.

Choosing a new style

I think making this film in an animated format was a very bold choice.

While a live-action film could have been more graphic and shown the true suffering, the animated medium feels more intimate somehow. I don’t think it would have done the story the justice it deserves.

While a live-action film could have been more graphic and shown the true suffering, the animated medium feels more intimate somehow. I don’t think it would have done the story the justice it deserves.

I was curious as to why Do chose animation, and luckily he provided an answer, one I find very interesting.

“I’ve chosen animation as it is a passion of mine. But I also prefer to see my mother drawn rather than played by a real actress because that pimples more universality. The heroine of Funan is Cambodian but first and foremost, a woman. A mother…Animation is an ideal medium to captivate the audience by giving them a perspective from reality. The film is realistic while preserving space for interpretation. In subtle ways, it will provoke and evoke.”

I think this was a really interesting way of saying it. Animation does allow us to better see the story as an interpretation of reality and events, rather than as an actual depiction of events happening. We better understand that what we’re seeing is an amalgamation of experiences and interpretations.

And the scenery can better mimic the tone the director is going for. I think part of the reason why people don’t make more stories like this isn’t only due to a lack of understanding of the medium – but also due to the fact that they think only real people can capture human emotions and have the human experiences.

How are they supposed to have sympathy for somebody who is just a bunch of lines and colors rather than somebody who is real?

Animation allowed something great to come out of this story which probably wouldn’t have been near as memorable had it been live-action.

It’s well written and it’s a topic that’s never been covered before. If you can, I really recommend watching it.

And that’s the scoop.


Score: 7/10



Year of release: 2018

Length: 84 minutes

Director: Denis Do

Producers: Sébastien Onomo, David Grumbach, Annemie Degryse, Louise Génis Cosserat, Justin Stewart

Writers: Denis Do, Magalu Pouzol, Elise Trinh

Voice Actors: Berenic BEjo, Louis Garre


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