As an ardent fan of animation, I am eternally grateful for distribution companies like GKIDS. In addition to representing Hayao Miyazaki and Satoshi Kon’s fare, the decade-old GKIDS has continuously released “sophisticated, indie,” international animated titles in the U.S., such as the recent Okko’s Inn, My Life As a Zucchini, Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, Ernest & Celestine, Boy and the World, and my all-time favorite, Grave of the Fireflies. Those films provide a respite from all the child-oriented animation dominating the market with their mature, pertinent themes and sometimes uncompromisingly violent imagery. They also give us an opportunity to witness highly-talented artists from all corners of the world, using brushes, pencils, and clay, as opposed to computers, to make their stories come alive. Sure, some of those features may be computer-enhanced or touched-up a little, but that special warmth, the very soul of the artist, remains intact.
Dennis Do’s latest entry into the GKIDS cannon, Funan – which he dedicated to his mother – is a story of a young mom and her 4-year-old son surviving during the 1975 Cambodian revolution. Funan represents GKIDS’ oeuvre perfectly; it’s not exactly what you’d call a “child-friendly toon,” with unflinching depictions of physical and mental duress, but it’s not intended to be one. The feature’s crisp, fluid animation emphasizes the hardships that the Cambodian people had to go through, amplifying the story’s resonant lyricism and sorrowful tone. Marking the French artist’s feature debut, Funan may not be subtle in its overt politicizing, but Do confidently and passionately reveals an often-overlooked, gruesome and important time of our history.
“Our heroes – along with 1.5 million people – “march towards an uncertain fate” – a.k.a. to be “purified” from evil American influences and thus form an egalitarian society.”
Funan finds its protagonists – Chou (Bérénice Bejo), her husband Khuon (Louis Garrel) and their 3-year-old son Sovanh, as well as extended family members – in the middle of the seizure and consequent forceful evacuation of the Cambodian capital Phnom-Penh by Angkar, “the Communist Party of the Khmer Rouge.” Our heroes – along with 1.5 million people – “march towards an uncertain fate” – a.k.a. to be “purified” from evil American influences and thus form an egalitarian society. They face countless predicaments along the way: their foreign car is deemed capitalist and destroyed; their valuables are confiscated, and their food supply is diminishing rapidly. Worst of all, Chou and Khuon lose little Sovanh during a treacherous, mined river crossing. The anxious parents soon learn that he’s been sent South, to “serve the Revolution,” a “day’s walk away.” “I’ll bring him back,” Khuon vows. “I promise.” Yet he doesn’t even make it past the guards.
Chou has to earn the right to be with her son, as “Angkar rewards those who work.” She repeatedly and futilely asks to see him, but the harder she works, the more distant the notion of a reunion becomes. Before she knows it, Sovanh’s sent North, far away across the country. Things really pick up halfway through the film, when Chou and Khuon make a daring escape to find their boy. As the years pass, Chou goes through tragedy after tragedy, losing weight – and parts of her soul along with it. Yet she never gives up her search, which leads to a moving finale, set on the Thailand border.
“Do and his team of animators fill Funan with striking imagery, its vibrant colors providing a vivid contrast to the dismal proceedings.”
Do and his team of animators fill Funan with striking imagery, its vibrant colors providing a vivid contrast to the dismal proceedings. Thousands of homeless people walk across the screen quietly, as birds tweet serenely in the background. Starving, desolate folks board skeletal boats against a rainy, tangerine sunset. Emerald rice is being planted in azure water, in endless parallel rows. A trail of ants converges into a teardrop-like formation at the end of a branch. Ashes float over the embers of what once was…
The anti-Communist polemic may be a bit too repetitive and on-the-nose (“Pain will cleanse the imperialism that’s devouring us,” a character states, echoing 80% of the film’s spoken sentiments). Funan’s deliberate pacing may throw off jaded viewers. That said, Do has created a tense, heartbreaking ode to a tragic time; a deeply personal story, superbly visualized. It does GKIDS proud. I can’t wait to see what the distributor – the A24 of animation – releases next.
Funan (2019) Directed by Denis Do. Written by Denis Do, Magali Pouzol and Elise Trinh. Featuring the voices of Bérénice Bejo, Louis Garrel, Colette Kieffer, Aude-Laurence Clermont Biver, Brice Montagne.
7 out of 10