The Years Shall Run Like Rabbits . . .
by Michael Joshua Rowin
Dir. Ellen Kuras and Thavisouk Phrasavath, U.S., Cinema Guild
[This review contains spoilers.]
The title of The Betrayal refers to three different treacherous acts, each of a varying combination of personal and political significance for the family of Laotian subject Thavisouk Phrasavath. The first is the United States’ expedient use of Laos during the Vietnam War, when the American military and CIA backed anticommunist forces in that country (while bombing it to smithereens) before pulling out and leaving Laos to the mercy of Communist Pathet Lao, who proceeded to purge and “reeducate” those who had been loyal to the United States. Phrasavath’s father was one of many Royal Army intelligence agents considered a traitor and abandoned and forgotten by America.
His imprisonment under the Lao regime convinces the Phrasavath family in 1981 to move, ironically enough, to the U.S., where, thrown by their sponsors into a Flatbush ghetto in Brooklyn, they find not the American dream but a blighted urban war zone beset by drugs, gangs, and daily violence. With the family tearing apart due to the strain of their environment and the lure the streets hold for the young children of the clan—who are unable to relate to their mother’s perceived out of touch Eastern values—a last hope arrives when their father resurfaces after having been thought dead. A happy reunion ensues for a couple of days before he drops a bombshell: another family he had started while left behind in Laos and an imminent move to live with them in Florida. The series of betrayals becomes increasingly more personal until this last wrenching infidelity, a disavowal of responsibility so shocking and yet so much the result of impossible circumstances that it becomes the final, perhaps inevitable, disappointment of so many years of disappointments, the point at which the Phrasavaths must give up all dreams of ever becoming whole.
As directed by Ellen Kuras, the film’s first half opens with a Laotian quotation, “The time will come when the universe will break,” and then unspools macro- and micro-apocalypses: the political upheaval during the Vietnam years and its effect on the Phrasavaths, whose paterfamilias sides with American-backed forces for the greater salary it will provide even as a younger generation of Laotians develops opposing feelings toward American presence. This section is chiefly comprised of archival footage of the devastation of Laos—which was hit with more bombs (three million tons) than the total dropped in both World Wars combined—and interviews with Thavisouk, called Thavi, and his mother about their lives during this period of turmoil. Despite the rich material, the first half doesn’t contain much of original visual worth—we learn about the plight of the country and the family mostly through talking-head interviews and voice-overs—and the “beautiful” original footage shot for the film (modern day scenes of Laos, most notably of Buddhist monks and children riding beasts through the water) are slowed down for maximum duration and overlaid with an oppressively lugubrious soundtrack. Kuras, best known for her DP work with Michel Gondry and Spike Lee, demonstrates a showy cinematographer’s eye in attempting to compensate for a dearth of powerful images to accompany the Phrasavaths’ words. Thavi’s escape from Laos into Thailand by floating across the Mekong River on inflated plastic bags, for example, becomes an account harrowing but distant, information told instead of experience shown.
Hints of a more direct approach appear in the form of images of Thavi and heavily tattooed friends hanging out by a Brooklyn basketball court in 1985, footage that comes at the beginning of the film to foreshadow the Phrasavaths’ eventual relocation. Kuras met Thavi back then while working on another project and became drawn to his story, and the second half of The Betrayal documents the twenty-plus years Kuras spent with Thavi as his family came undone by external and internal pressures. Credited as the film’s co-director and editor, Thavi continually addresses the camera as life in America descends into nightmare. Thinking their father’s service for the American government would be repaid in the States, the members of the large Phrasavath clan are stunned when crowded into a ghetto apartment with at least a dozen other Cambodians and Vietnamese. An opposing picture of the heaven they imagined of life in America emerges as younger sister Khaysy dates a neighborhood gang member of whom the family disapproves; mom loses control over her children; and a neighbor is held up, robbed, and threatened with rape by a local gang. These moments unfold as confessions, conversations, and arguments, and the effect is immediate recognition of Thavi’s desperate conditions and struggle for survival. “Living in America, we are losing ourselves,” his mother rants about the Laotian youths’ refusal to acknowledge the past in favor of the cheap thrills of the present. The greater tragedy might very well be a culture’s disintegration along with an exiled people.
And then, just as we feel this intimacy has been too painful to witness even if second-hand, all seems to be worth it: dad contacts the family after years apart, and we see them gather around the phone. In intimate home-video footage, mom and dad eat as their children form a circle around the two, just content to watch them together again. But the final betrayal arrives: dad backs out. Thavi’s appeal to his father over the phone to stay with the family is The Betrayal’s emotional peak, and dad’s cold, self-protective rebuff is a demoralizing slap in the face. Surprisingly, The Betrayal ends on a melancholic note of acceptance. As mom symbolically releases her pain by freeing a purchased animal (Kuras’s camera lingers on a turtle swimming away in a Prospect Park lake) and dad—who suffers the loss of his son from his other family in gang-related violence—expresses sincere regret for what he did to his country, Thavi returns to Laos to see two sisters and a grandmother who were left behind there. It’s a bittersweet reunion—joy is tempered by a smoldering rage at the unchecked injustices of history that made such a reunion necessary, as well as lingering hurt caused by the disloyalties of one’s flesh and blood that prevent a full restoration of family. Kuras and Phrasavath convey these feelings while uncovering the personal cost of political betrayal, their (self-) portrait operating successfully on multiple planes of emotion and awareness.