Funan (2019; Denis Do)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens Friday, June 21, at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco.
French artist and first-time feature filmmaker Do based this “digitally hand-drawn” GKIDS release on stories told by his Cambodian mother. Earnest and filled with grace, Funan follows a Phnom Penh family during the brutal Communist regime of the Khmer Rouge.
A little history: after years of American bombing and the fall of Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge seized the Cambodian capital city in 1975. They resettled the population into labor-intensive re-education camps, torturing and murdering anyone who resisted. By the time KR leader Pol Pot got removed from power in 1979, roughly 2 million people had died in the Cambodian Genocide. In other words, The Secret Life of Pets 2 this is not.
Bérénice Bejo and Louis Garrel give voice to Chou and Khuon, a relatively prosperous couple forced into slave labor by the Khmer Rouge. Chou and Khuon become separated from their small child and his grandmother in the early days of the evacuation. The ruthless Communists keep the kid in separate camps for years, while the parents risk everything to get him back.
At heart, Funan offers a familiar but still moving story of bravery and sacrifice in the face of unspeakable horrors. After a few harrowing early sequences, though, the film settles into a repetitively miserable rhythm. Scenes detailing the hopelessness and dehumanization of concentration camp life work well enough here. However, nothing in Funan feels measurably more unique or personalized than similar moments in Son of Saul, Kapo (1960), The Killing Fields or a hundred other films.
Anyway, with its simple design, clean lines and realistic tone, Funan doesn’t feel that much different than a live-action film. As ever with adult-oriented cartoons, it’s healthy to question if it needed to be animated instead of live-action. In the end, Funan makes a somewhat flimsy case.