Critical thumbs up
|Rithy Panh's latest film, The Missing Picture, has received critical acclaim at Cannes|
“The festival’s second pointedly inventive autobiography has none of the dark whimsy of the Jodorowsky, trading it instead for a grave retelling of Rithy Panh's childhood in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge,” begins Notebook editor Daniel Kasman. “A recreation of the era and Panh’s personal anecdotes is accomplished through the creation of countless clay figures—carved and painted, we see, by hand, out of ‘earth and water’ - staged in static scenes through which the camera moves and the director cuts. They fill in a gap, the missing image of the title: a missing photographic record of the human experience of the horror and oppression behind the government’s official ideology.”
In a Film Comment roundtable, editor Gavin Smith notes that “Alex Horwath convinced me to see it, and one of the things he said was that Panh addresses the problem Godard is always talking about: how to represent the unrepresentable—reconciling images and reality.”
“The dollhouse-sized markets, schools, and rice paddies soon give away to other scenes of black-clad clay prisoners in the work camp where, as Panh narrates, he was taken with his family at the age of thirteen,” writes Barbara Scharres at RogerEbert.com. “To his own powerful memory-driven narration, Panh alternates increasingly elaborate scenes of his clay figures in the camp environment with sequences of archival footage or those in which his cartoon-like figures are juxtaposed against filmic backgrounds. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.”
Calling The Missing Picture a “deliberately distanced but often harrowing vision of a living hell,” Neil Young, writing for the Hollywood Reporter, notes that “this painful memoir based on Panh’s own book The Elimination…. From 1975 to 1979 under the leadership of Pol Pot, the regime inflicted cruelly harsh policies on the country they renamed Kampuchea. Their ideology was modeled partly on Communist teachings, most notably China’s ‘Great Leap Forward’ under Chairman Mao, and partly, we’re told here, on Jean Jacques Rousseau’s ‘noble savage’ concepts exalting the purity of pre-industrial civilizations…. But as Panh remarks, our conception of the Khmer Rouge, and indeed his own memories, are full of ‘missing pictures,’ and he expounds in poetically philosophical fashion on the limitations of our image-dominated comprehension of the world.”
Panh is probably best known for his 2003 documentary S-21: The Khmer Rouge Death Machine. The BFI’s Geoff Andrew finds the new film “moving and remarkably resonant.” On Monday, writing for the International Cinephile Society, March van de Klashorst called it “the most mesmerizing thing seen so far here in Cannes.”
Nigel Andrews of the Financial Times had this to say; "Better films have shown on the fringe, best of all a Cambodian memoir/documentary of force, intelligence and terrible beauty: Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picture. Panh has versed us in the atrocities of the Pol Pot era before. He made S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine. What can be left to say? Plenty. The Missing Picture fills in the missing picture. Here are the director’s childhood years in the tilling/killing fields. Pol Pot’s dream of an agrarian Utopia was, for those forced to fulfil it, a nightmare of hard labour, disease, starvation and death. Little filmic evidence has survived, so the director reconstructs scenes of suffering or horror with clay models. Sounds ridiculous? No more so than the near-cartoonish lines and feral faux-naïveté of Picasso’s “Guernica”. The poignant mini-humans, with their painted eyes, sit or stand in handcrafted landscapes of fastidious detail. Sometimes a flicker of rare archive footage interrupts the toy-town recreations. But we don’t doubt the truth of either reality or feel from either a diminished impact. This was Cambodia in the late 1970s/1980s: the worst world that humans can contrive, apart from the other worst worlds (a rich choice) the 20th century gave us."
Footnote: The Missing Picture was voted best in category for the competition, A Certain Regard, at Cannes. Another feather in Rithy Panh's cap. We're now waiting for a showing in Phnom Penh.