Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picture used clay figurines to represent the non-existent images of the Khmer Rouge’s reign in Cambodia to startling effect and wide acclaim. Having survived the regime’s genocide in the late seventies, Panh has spent much of his career delving into his country’s bloody history and he returns again to the subject matter with his new film Exile. At once a much more personal account of his experience of the period and a considerably more highfalutin and abstract piece or work, it’s best described as a poetic and philosophical essay rather than a traditional documentary.
Accompanied for most of its running time by a single monologue, written by Christophe Bataille and read by Randal Douc, the action takes place in a sound-stage recreation of a hut whose sole inhabitant is actor Sang Nan (a clear Panh proxy). The contents of the hut change over time, making for a series of tableaux, some purely allegorical and others subjective representations of reality. The voiceover discusses Panh’s own devotion to the idea of the Kampuchean Revolution as an adolescent – “children go to war and it’s a war against oneself, a blazing anger” – and uses this as a jumping off point for a wider reflection on the extremes of political ideologies and the perpetuation of revolution. “Every revolution is a crime, betraying another crime,” says the voiceover before a subsequent addendum that “evil is the price for the common good.”
The text is littered with variously intellectual musings on these themes, from Mao, to Baudelaire and Robespierre, intertwined with the far more intimate memories. This style is echoed by the stage work which ranges from esoteric dioramas with floating boulders and the solar system revolving around the room to Sang Nan mourning photographs of Panh’s mother, or a room filled with effects of a murdered family, gathering dust. On some occasions its significance to the story is clear – as when a rat is roasted during discussion of famine – and on others the connection is far more obscure.
Exile is far more obscure when compared to the widely seen The Missing Picture and it would probably benefit from the imminent description of it as a companion piece (though that is undoubtedly not Panh’s intention). A less accomplished but more ambitious film, it also uses archival propaganda to juxtapose against the recounted reality but its true innovation comes in the form of the staged tableaux which almost have a hint of Greenaway about them, were the voiceover reminds more of Patricio Guzmán. Such comparisons do all three filmmakers a disservice, but convey something of the cerebral creativity on show.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson