“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 S21: 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, Marc van de Klashorst called it “the most mesmerizing thing seen so far here in Cannes.”
Update, 5/28: Film.com‘s Jordan Hoffman readily agrees that this “gripping, fascinating and visually arresting memoir” is “well deserving of its Un Certain Regard prize…. The use of clay figures is easier to take than film images of starving children and grieving families, but the innocence of the figures take on their own unique sadness. The Missing Image concludes by saying that no one living should ever witness such things, but ‘if you do see, you must tell.'”
Update, 5/31: Variety‘s Justin Chang: “One of the most moving stories re-enacted here is the filmmaker’s memory of how his father chose, with great dignity, to die of starvation rather than to continue subsisting on rations fit for animals. ‘Sometimes, a small gesture is all it takes to say no,’ Panh notes. Whatever one takes away from The Missing Picture, there can be no doubt that its very existence—rising from the ashes of a system designed to obliterate, among other things, intellectual and artistic achievement—is itself a powerful form of resistance.”
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