‘Funan’ Review: An Unflinching, Animated Story of Survival

In 1988, the Japanese director Isao Takahata broke new ground in animation with “Grave of the Fireflies,” an almost unbearably grim story of children in a devastated post-World War II Kobe. That picture used the medium of animation not just to depict the deprivation and suffering of its young characters, but also to show their memories and the better world they imagine.

“Funan,” a new and striking animated film directed by Denis Do, tells the story of a Cambodian family separated during the Khmer Rouge-ordered migrations of the mid-1970s. Here, a child, separated from his parents and moving from labor camp to labor camp, does not find solace in memories or imagination. Most of the movie focuses on the parents and their determination to escape their own enslavement and find their son.

Do’s tale is resolutely earthbound. He uses animation as an interrogation into the practice of fictional depiction derived from actual atrocities. Do almost always cuts away when the Khmer Rouge functionaries shoot or hang subjects who have displeased them. But he is unflinching when displaying the corruption and personal betrayals that bloom and spread when your neighbor becomes your (armed) captor.

The director is of Cambodian extraction but was born and raised in France; he chose to tell this story in the language of his home. Louis Garrel and Bérénice Bejo voice the couple Khoun and Chou, who face a relentless barrage of undesirable choices, with exceptional sensitivity.

For a film that aims to reach older children and young adults, its moral is unusually bracing: There sometimes is hope at the end of a bad road, but only if you live to reach that end.

Not rated. In French, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 24 minutes.


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