Cambodia’s first Oscar-nominated film — in the Best Foreign Language Film category — is a refreshingly tough-to-pin down blend of documentary and memoir from filmmaker Rithy Panh, who was a child when Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge descended upon his nation like a plague. His vivid memories of the mass deportation of the entire population of Phnom Penh to the countryside, of re-education and nonstop toil in the work camps, of hunger used as a weapon, of the demoralizing depersonalization of a collectivism that meant “you own a spoon, and that’s it” are brought to appropriately deadened life in the tiny clay figures he carves and the scenarios he peoples with them. Because there are no photographs of that time — the pictures are missing — and no film that isn’t Pot’s desperate propaganda intended to convince the West that his demented notions of an ideal society had triumphed. There is a still emptiness to his figures and the twisted dioramas they stage, and a hauntedness to the narration — by actor Randal Douc of Panh’s words — that explains how “color had vanished, like laughter, song, and dance,” that speaks of a “hospital” where everyone dies. This is like a dream, like a nightmare, and it often flows in an eerie stream of consciousness. And though there are hints of humor here and there — a capitalist car is “re-educated,” deployed for use in a dam — this is mostly a difficult film to watch, and not only for the relentless ghastliness of the subject matter. The deadened life of those clay figurines have a power as their own kind of art, but it is not a power that makes it easy to engage with on the personal level Panh aims for. This is a commendable film, as both artistic endeavor and historical record, but I wasn’t as drawn into the world it wants to create as I would have liked to be.
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