Animation is an unbelievably versatile medium for storytelling, more so than most audiences give it credit for. At the mere mention of animation, most think of the latest Disney project like Ralph Breaks the Internet, Frozen, or Moana, each strong and entertaining in their own right, but even for the ones which make billions of dollars from the trends they set, they are rarely viewed as more than drawings. So when films like Sony Classics’s Ruben Brandt, Collector or Sony Pictures Animation’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse descended into theaters at the end of 2018, few paid either film little mind at first. Certainly Oscar winner Spider-Verse has grown larger in people’s minds since its December 2018 debut, mostly because of its impeccable storytelling, but what keeps audiences coming back is the level of detail the animators worked in to capture the essence of comics. For Ruben Brandt, it used the medium in a similar manner, utilizing some of the most famous pieces of art in the world as inhabitants of a story centered on art thefts. Capturing the tone, the community, or the culture of the subject is integral to crafting a powerful story. For Ruben director Milorad Krstic, that meant bending the famous works of other artists to suit the needs of his psychological thriller. For Spider-Verse directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman, that meant incorporating ben day dots, split panels, and text boxes. For Denis Do’s Funan, it was capturing the strange dichotomy between the beautiful Cambodia and the terrible violence which struck his family.
On April 17th, 1975, the Cambodian capital Phnom-Penh was overtaken by Angkar, the communist party of the Khmer Rouge, which moved citizens out of them their homes, stripped them of their possessions, and placed them into various workers camps. The people of Cambodia lived in absolute terror. For Chou (voiced by Bérénice Bejo) and her husband Khuon (voiced by Louis Garrel), it didn’t just mean harsh working conditions, insufficient food, and never knowing if the people overseeing them would torture, abuse, or kill them. No. It came when their three-year-old son Sovanh became separated from them as they crossed a mine-filled river. As the war raged on, days turning to months into years, the only thing that kept Chou and Khuon going was the hope of being reunited with their son.
Almost all quintessential tragedies bring forth ethical questions. When faced with terrible choices of survival, the matter of how far you’re willing to go, what you’re willing to do, and how much you’re willing to give up become daily challenges. To a degree, these situations strip a person straight down to their essence, making way for their true self to emerge. This is but a small part of what Do’s Funan presents as it challenges its audience with wave after wave of personal horror and tragedy. Drawing from his mother’s experience attempting to survive under the Khmer Rouge, Do presents Funan as non-judgmental as it can be when presenting the trials she endured. For example, if you knew that attempting to save someone’s life would likely get you killed, would you try? If you were told that obedience would be rewarded where resistance is punished, which would you exemplify? If all you hold dear is shredded before you, bit by bit, who would you become by the end? These are neither challenges nor questions Do seeks to answer for the characters or the audience. Instead, his film seems intent on merely placing these truths before us, asking the audience to question our own will. For that’s what Funan is, a story of will, of hard determination, and of the vitality of the human spirit. Even as Funan takes place during a horrific period in Cambodia’s history, an time which took the lives of 1.7-2 million people and exiled countless others, there resides a sense of renewal within Funan, of stewardship, and of hope.
This is where the beauty of animation comes in. Whether through still frames or wonderfully layered sequences of action, Funan flows from one moment to another like a fluid nightmare. The opening scene is, itself, breathtaking for numerous reasons. For one, without so much as a clue, it presents a mother chasing a scream through an area filled completely with white. Only her green shirt, black hair, and tan skin on her arms, neck, and head presenting any color. As she races through the white, her entire world is drowned in black. Then, as though nothing had happened, Funan shows up the vibrant, bustling city Chou and her family call home. In barely five-minutes, Do makes it clear that this story is rife with terrible conflict, yet remains in possession of hope. In one such beautiful moment later in the film, Chou and Khuron find a quiet moment, almost as husband and wife, standing below the moon’s glow. It’s a moment of glorious tranquility they capture for themselves. This is a scene, of course, which can be replicated in live-action, yet the colors are impossibility precise for live-action that CG would be required to capture the same emotion. Similarly, as the people are stripped of their possessions, clothes, and other items suggesting individuality, the animation under art director Michael Crouzat enables Do to implant a notion of sameness amongst the characters through controlled character design which is harder to accomplish without the control of a pen stroke. Even in this moment of degradation, animation imbues a beauty to the moment, tempering the pain and struggle into something more palatable.
This, of course, is the incredible power of animation over live-action. Live-action makes an event feel real, feel tangible, a requirement when trying to get an audience to breach the barrier of reality to engage a story completely. But in a situation where a story is inspired by real events, especially ones as tragic as Do’s family endured for four years, animation allows for the crossing of the reality barrier while also remaining a safe distance away from the horror. Funan pulls few punches in telling the story of the lengths people went through to survive and how much of their souls they were willing to sell for a chance at making it through. In several cases, Funan would become too much to bear in live action as the audiences observe small children in peril and the choices Chou and Khuron must make. Through animation, though, everything becomes softer, more like a fairy tale, even if a Grimm one, where terrible things may happen, but it’s not real. Strangely, with that distance, there’s a chance for audiences to connect emotionally in a way which would be stunted by live-action.
Director Denis Do and co-writer Magali Pouzol, along with art director Michael Crouzat, craft a film which is deeply moving in its quest to vilify no one. At the worst of times, everyone is capable of anything and the choices we make are often justified by the situation. Funan is a story of a moment in history whose impact is not only still being felt physically, but also still rattles through the survivors psychologically. This is beautifully depicted in the changes the audience is shown in the actions of the otherwise silent Sovanh. His portion of the story is more silent film than modern talkie, yet it’s an aspect powerful enough to bring any parent to their knees. Bittersweet in its totality, Funan is an incredible journey of the human spirit which is not to be missed.
Funan opens in NYC on June 7 at the IFC Center before opening in L.A. on June 14 at Laemmle Glendale. For information on these limited screening events and where else to find Funan, head to the official Funan or GKids website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.