Even the best children’s movies rarely venture thematically beyond cliché: Childhood is special, girls can be strong, be yourself. Funan, an animated feature currently in limited release, is something different: a heartbreaking tale of a mother’s search for her missing son amidst the horror unleashed by Cambodian Communists in the 1970s.
Funan (an ancient name for southeast Asia) focuses on a loving, relatively well-off family living in the Cambodian capital city, Phnom Penh, who in April 1975 are forced by the Communist revolutionaries of the Khmer Rouge to leave their homes and march into work camps. During the upheaval, a 3-year-old boy, Sovanh, and his grandmother get separated from the rest of the family. The director of the film, Denis Do, born in France but of Cambodian heritage, based the lead character on his mother, who was separated from his brother for four years.
Struggling to stay alive and to keep their family together, wife Chou (Bérénice Bejo) and husband Khuon (Louis Garrel) suffer together in what amounts to a prison work camp, keeping tabs on the whereabouts of their boy only via scraps they learn from a brainwashed relative who is one of the revolutionary soldiers. The only conceivable end to the nightmare is to find the boy and get over the border to Thailand.
Funan is a human drama, not a history lesson, and yet Do nails both the specific and the general horror of collectivization. The Communist Party, Angkar (literally, “the Organization”), is on a demented crusade to create “new people” out of the Cambodian citizens. The family’s Western-style clothes must be turned in and replaced by loose black unisex two-piece garments: the People’s pajamas. “We’re all the same now,” a revolutionary says, exultant. Women’s hair gets chopped off, and women and men work side by side in hard labor. Everyone lives off rice; to shake fruit out of a tree is to risk execution by the regime. The people don’t dare eat the People’s fruit.
The script doesn’t attempt to capture the big picture of what happened in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979, but by exploring a single family’s plight as it gets sucked into the maelstrom, it makes for a profoundly insightful exposé of how collectivism actually works. Funan isn’t merely first-rate for an animated movie, it’s important by any cinematic standard, and implicitly it shames the world’s leading film hubs for almost completely ignoring this bloody chapter in history. The Khmer Rouge killed, via starvation and mass execution, nearly a quarter of the population of their country. What has Hollywood had to say about this in the last 44 years? Well, there was The Killing Fields, back in 1984. That was pretty much it.
Even a child taking in this film (whose depictions of murder and suicide, while not graphic, are too disturbing for the very young) will note the contrast between how the revolutionaries talk and what the meaning of their words is. Angkar will take care of you, they say: this means sleeping in drafty huts. “Fair and egalitarian” means everyone has to do what the men pointing rifles at them say. Angkar “will purify you” means it will starve you. People wither and shrink and finally, agonizingly, starve to death, denied any sustenance except small amounts of rice. The “infirmary,” we learn, is simply a place where people are parked when they’re dying. Lying always accompanies Communism and socialism because they destroy so much of what is good about living.
A point you might make to older children who see this movie (and they should) is that the Communists speak of their mission as if they intended to turn the state into a kind of family, in which everyone looks out for everyone. Meanwhile the exact opposite happens in practice: Chou and Khuon’s family, large and prosperous in the opening scenes, keeps shrinking as people die off or otherwise get separated. Within the work farms, desperately hungry people don’t act like happy siblings at all. Within the strictures imposed by Angkar, they lose any hope of remaking the system and instead turn bitterly on one another. Far from being a thriving organic unit, society becomes a poison snakepit of all against all. “Let them lose a child now,” says an embittered, suffering mother about another family. “New people” indeed; a people redefined by pain. The only thing collectivization shares is misery.