Animator Denis Do’s debut feature “Funan” is set during the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. (Courtesy GKids)

‘Funan’ beautiful, harrowing tale

A compelling depiction of life under Khmer Rouge

It won’t give the new “Toy Story” adventure a run for its box-office money, but “Funan,” the other animated feature opening Friday at the Roxie, undeniably merits attention.

Paris-born director Denis Do affectingly combines hand-drawn animation with a fact-based story of horror and hope in this adult-geared, French-language, Cambodia-set debut feature.

Cowritten by Do and Magali Pouzol, the movie brings to mind “Waltz With Bashir,” “The Breadmaker” and “Persepolis” — animated films set in times of war or totalitarianism.

It also suggests Rithy Panh’s Cambodia-themed documentary “The Missing Picture,” in that it tells a deeply personal story.

It transpires during the four-year reign of the Khmer Rouge, the regime that, espousing both communist ideals and xenophobic nationalist attitudes, committed one of the highest-toll genocides of the 20th century.

An estimated 1.7 million to 2 million people — intellectuals, well-educated people, members of certain ethnic groups — were killed. About half a million individuals went into exile.

Inspired by his mother’s Cambodia experiences, Do gives us a heroine named Chou (voiced by French actress Berenice Bejo), who lives in culturally thriving Phnom Penh. When Khmer Rouge revolutionaries take over the city in April 1975, Chou is forced, along with her husband, Khuon (Louis Garrel), and their extended family to relocate to the countryside.

Soldiers destroy the family’s car, branding it imperialist. They force everyone to walk across a mine-rigged river.

Things become still worse when Chou and Khuon’s 3-year-old son gets lost. The captors forbid the frantic couple from looking for him.

At times echoing “First They Killed My Father,” the film depicts life in incompetently operated agricultural labor camps, where Chou and other characters experience exhaustion, starvation, indoctrination and separation from loved ones. Some are shot, beaten, or raped (acts that usually occur off-screen). Everyone makes moral compromises to survive.

What keeps Chou going is her determination to find her son —whose life Do shows us periodically — and her wish to escape to Thailand with her family.

Do depicts predicaments better than he develops characters. His portrayal of the Khmer Rouge also could use more detail. And the hopeful ending is somewhat pat.

But the film is still a visually striking, dramatically powerful story of endurance and hope. It also demonstrates the expressive and emotional potential of animation.

Do’s Cambodian landscapes — verdant jungles and herons under vermillion sunsets — convey the beauty of this country seized by terror.

With gracefully drawn lines, Do illustrates, on Chou’s face, the effects of oppression. We witness the evaporation of this once joyful woman’s spirit. Yet even when Chou has hardened, tears stream from her eyes when she closes her lids. It’s a beautiful image in a movie filled with them.

REVIEW

Funan

Three stars

Starring: Voices of Berenice Bejo, Louis Garrel

Written by: Denis Do, Magali Pouzol

Directed by: Denis Do

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes

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