The Killing Fields (1984) was an influential movie for me. I was 19 when it came out and it was my first experience of the atrocities of Pol Pot in Cambodia and the eradication of 2 million people. Funan covers the same story, focusing on one family who are forced to flee Phnom Penh by the Khmer Rouge (or Angkar).
Chou (voiced by Bérénice Bejo), Khuon (Louis Garrel) and their three-year-old son and grandmother are on a forced march with all their belongings. The guerillas make them give up their car and destroy it because of its imperialist origins. When their young son is momentarily lost, their grandmother goes in search of him but the guerillas force Chou and Khuon to march on. Forced to work in a labour camp, they are reassured that their son is being looked after elsewhere. Any attempts to find him are met with brutality until cousin Sok (Thierry Jahn), a fervent convert to Angkar, tries to help.
This is not a story that has much lightness and it is a sad and sobering experience. There is little ambiguity about the inhumanity and venality unfolding. Perpetrators espouse egalitarianism but take advantage of their privilege and use fear and violence to dominate. Friends and neighbours turn against each other, through jealousy and a desperation to survive.
The animation is a mix of exquisite backgrounds that show verdant and postcard perfect landscapes – the sowing of rice was particularly beautiful – and flat cartoon-like characters. It is at its best with deft and subtle small narrative moments that show the innocence of the children, who don’t recognise the real menace and tragedy, contrasted with our own understanding of what is really happening.
I left feeling despair at the ease with which dictators can turn community into suspicion, loss and tragedy. It’s a story of its time but not one that the world has transcended.
Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.