A child is separated from his parents, who spend years searching for him during Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge holocaust, in the simply but elegantly animated drama “Funan.”
It’s another version of “The Killing Fields,” with somewhat less killing. Gunfire only erupts in the grim third act, years into the murderous reign of the folks Spalding Grey famously labeled “Cambodian rednecks” in his monologue/history/memoir “Swimming to Cambodia.”
Director and co-writer Denis Do’s feature animation directing debut takes a familiar path, briefly showing us the civilized, peaceful if not entirely carefree Cambodia of the early ’70s. That was before the rural Khmer Rouge (“Cambodians with red scarves”) and their “Angkor” mythic communist party overran the country and its feckless leadership.
The extended family of Chou (voiced by Bérénice Bejo) and Khuon (Louis Garrel), including their three year-old son Sovanh, are herded out of the cities and into the countryside.
“The Revolution is underway,” they are lectured. “Minds must be cleared of ‘foreign influence,'” they are lectured (in French, with English subtitles). “Angkor will take care of you!”
Stripped of most of their possessions, they’re forced to labor on communes — rice farms, lumber harvesting, all of it by hand “the old ways.” They’re making Cambodia great again by taking it back hundreds of years to its Angkor Wat/”Funan” past.
Brother Meng (Brice Montagne), drawn with a perpetual scowl, sees the tactics and recognizes the end game. They’re being threatened and summarily executed for “crimes,” real and imagined. They’re starved and worked to death.
The Khmer Rouge are “breaking us, one by one. We must FLEE Cambodia!”
But Chou and Khuon cannot leave. Her mother and their little boy were separated from them on the “death march” to the camp. They must find them. It takes years.
There are moving moments in the film’s situations and the characters’ struggles — women and men learning the grim calculus of survival under a murderously primitive and authoritarian regime.
“Eating is EVERYthing” they begin to realize.
Treachery, sexual exchanges for food, befriending that one guard you recognize from “before,” all will play a part. Not everyone will survive this. Millions of Cambodians didn’t.
This European production is more a reminder of what went on than a story that brings fresh horrors to light. The cruelty of separating children from their parents in “camps” makes it topical in a world and US roiled by immigrant-phobia.
And the animation is more a simple service to the story than anything dazzling or impressive. “Funan” fails that one crucial animation test, “Does this story need animation to be told?” But simple and simplified, “Funan” still manages to present a grim history lesson in a sometimes-moving, almost kid-friendly animated package.
MPAA Rating: TV-14, depictions of war, murder and suicide.
Cast: Bérénice Bejo, Louis Garrel, Colette Kieffer, Brice Montagne and Aude-Laurence Clermont Biver
Credits: Directed by Denis Do, script by Denis Do,Magali Pouzol and Elise Trinh. A Universal/G Kids release on Netflix.
Running time: 1:24