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Funan (2018)

Cambodia, 1975. Chou and her family's life is turned upside down by the arrival of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime.  Separated from her young son, Chou and her husband are forced into exile. Far from home and forced to work for the new regime, but Chou never loses her determination to find her boy and flee to safety.

Funan is directed by Denis Do and written by Do alongside Magali Pouzol and Elize Trinh. It's produced by Beast Productions, Vivement Lundi and Pedri Animation, and released in the United States by GKIDS Films. In 2018 it won the Cristal Award for Best Feature Film at Annecy, and the top prize at Animation Is Film festival.

In a world where animation is still so often associated with talking animals, musicals and slapstick humour, a sombre, French, animated drama about the Khmer Rouge is never going to be an easy sell. And if you're looking for a spot of escapism or light entertainment then be forewarned that Funan is definitely not that.

As the synopsis suggests, this is deadly serious stuff, inspired by real history and specifically Do's own family history. It's a very personal story. There may be much bigger events going on around the country but we see what it was like from the ground. We see the story through the eyes of one young family, and mainly through Chou herself. Occasionally we get to see what's happened to others, but (sensibly) the story remains mainly focused on the one simple story.

It's probably the film's masterstroke. There are numerous other animated stories of war- films such as The Breadwinner or Grave Of the Fireflies are perhaps the closest comparisons. But whereas many of these films choose a child's eye view, this chooses another approach. Putting the family at the middle of the story makes it incredibly easy to identify with them. It's any families nightmare situation and it will draw it anyone who is able to put themselves in the shoes of any member of the family. In this way, it's an incredibly universal story.

Funan wastes little time setting up It spends just a few minutes showing us their happy everyday lives before it brings it crashing down. But it's enough. Enough to show us how families everywhere are the same. And emphasising just how quickly everything can change forever.
The film's visual style blends some fairly flat and simple, basically animated character designs with some thoroughly gorgeous backgrounds.  It doesn't draw too much attention to the visuals (at the possible expense of the plot) but it does have some beautiful sequences designed to contrast the stunning Cambodian landscape with the brutality of the people's lives.

It's a definitely bleak watch, and moments of lighter relief or humour are basically non-existent. It exudes an air or constant menace and threat that you imagine must be felt in living under such conditions. And yet it manages this while almost never showing on screen violence. It never once feels remotely exploitative.

Yet for all the darkness and real-life horror, there's a ray of hope that shines throughout. Funan may depict humanity at its most savage and inhumane, and there are losses along the way. But it's also at the same time a testament to the strength of the human spirit and to the power of family and love. Do dedicates the film to his mother, brother and "all the exiles", emphasising once again that is a deeply personal film.

Funan also stands as more evidence that animation is a medium capable of telling a much wider variety of stories than it's often given credit for.

It's a very serious subject matter, so it's easy to see why this doesn't have the wide appeal of other GKIDS releases. But anybody who takes animation seriously owes it to themselves to see this. You'll be glad you did.



IN A NUTSHELL: A powerful, personal film that shines a light on one of recent history's darkest chapters. Denis Do's debut is quite the calling card.

*Screener provided by GKIDS Films*