In 1975, the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia’s communist party, overthrew the Cambodian government and took over the country, bringing with them four years of genocide. They forced Cambodians into work camps, massacred minority populations, and preached the benefits of communism to justify their violence. Denis Do’s animated film, Funan, tells the story of a family trying to survive and stay together in the face of this fascist regime. Its beautiful animation style and honest, yet non-exploitative, portrayals of violence create a film with raw emotional power.
While the family oF Funan is fictional, their story is based on the experiences of Do’s mother. The film begins with shots of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, a city buzzing with sounds of scooter engines, full of smells of freshly cooked food wafting through windows; it is a place full of life and, in the case of the film’s family, love. This young family is made up of mother, Chou, father, Khuon, and son, Sovanh. But this idyllic scene is quickly shattered as the radio announces the Khmer Rouge has gained control of the city. This launches Chou, Khuon, and Sovanh into a chaotic journey where they are separated and spend years trying to find one another.
Animation is not just for children’s cartoons. It is a powerful medium that can interpret the world as something both beautiful and terrifying. It can create a distance from violence that does not lessen its emotional impact. Funan perfectly demonstrates this power, never shying away from the Khmer Rouge’s atrocities whilst avoiding exploitative scenes meant only to shock and disgust the audience. Rather, the film shows violence and death through quick shots, shadows, or even just sound effects. But Funan doesn’t just illustrate violence—its animation style highlights the unrelenting beauty of Cambodia, a stunning backdrop to endless death.
Funan packs an unrelenting emotional impact about the resilience of love and the many different faces of survival. It is not a feel good film with an ending that will somehow wipe away the previous hour and twenty minutes of pain. It may leave you feeling hollow and sad, but it will also leave you in awe of its beauty, its storytelling, and its portrayal of family. This may just be our generation’s Grave of the Fireflies.
A Land Imagined is screening Thursday, March 21, as part of Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema.