“Funan” is a stunning piece of animation in which the beauty of the visuals and the horror of the situation are inextricably intertwined.
Directed by Denis Do and based on his mother’s experiences in Cambodia before he was born, “Funan” won the top prize at the Annecy international festival, the equivalent of the best picture Oscar for animation.
The depredations of the Khmer Rouge in that country have inspired films before, most prominently Angelina Jolie’s “First They Killed My Father” but also searing documentaries “The Missing Picture” and “S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine” from director Rithy Pran.
Co-written by Magali Pouzol, this French-language film holds its own with those because of the honesty of its presentation and those spectacular visuals.
The film starts, inevitably, on April 17, 1975, the day the Khmer Rouge, violent revolutionaries who call themselves Ankar, take over the capital city of Phnom Penh and forcibly evacuate its 1.5-million citizens.
“Funan” focuses on one extended family, and most closely on husband and wife Chou (voiced by Oscar nominee Bérénice Bejo) and Khoun (Louis Garrel) and their 3-year-old son, Sovanh.
Early in the evacuation, as the parents grapple with things like having to ford a river that is mined with bombs, Sovanh runs off and gets lost in the endless throngs. Going after him — the merciless Khmer guards make clear — is not an option.
At this point “Funan” splits its focus, alternating between what happens to Sovanh (he ends up in an indoctrination camp for children intended to make him “a good little revolutionary”) and to his parents.
They, as much as him, are at the mercy of Khmer zealots, who destroy the family car because it is a “foreign influence” and insist that everyone “get rid of imperialist clothes.”
Believers that “pain will cleanse imperialism,” the Khmer impose savage working conditions and near starvation diets on everyone, and the pitiless situations that Chou and Khoun are subjected to can be painful to watch.
Through it all, the parents, but especially mother Chou, never forget about their son and never cease working as best they can to find him and reunite the family.
Created in a straight-ahead, non-showy style which the director refers to as “sober,” the images in “Funan,” often of rural panoramas, are completely gorgeous and ease some of the sting of the film’s horrors.
Nothing, however, can take those evils totally away, or erase the family memories that inspired this powerful film’s creation.
Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes
Playing: Laemmle’s Glendale, Glendale