“The very first thing I knew was that my country was at war,” Thavi tells us, “and that my father was a soldier.” Nerakhoon, which is also being called The Betrayal, is a saga of vicious U.S. war, U.S. betrayal, and becoming immigrants in a strange and inhospitable land. Thavi’s father, an officer in the Royal Laotian Army, was a consultant for the U.S.’s “secret” war in Laos during the Nixon administration, during which more bombs were dropped than in World Wars I and II combined. The rationale for this sustained and, in a sense, endless atrocity during the Vietnam War is that the Ho Chi Minh Trail continues into Laos and the communist Pathet Lao was threatening Laotian neutrality—which, of course, was also what the U.S. was doing. The U.S. lost the Vietnam War and betrayed its Laotian allies by withdrawing without notice on a dime, leaving men such as Thavi’s father to their fates. The family presumed that he was executed by the Pathet Lao, whom Thavi, a child, saw take him away; he was, rather, imprisoned and “re-educated,” but thereafter regarded (rightly) as a traitor. (He ended up in Florida with a new wife and family—another betrayal; a son is murdered by a member of the son’s own gang.) Leaving two daughters behind, Thavi’s mother left Laos; Thavi, the eldest son, left on his own, escaping at 12 by swimming the Mekong River. Eventually the reduced family made it to New York, where they uncomfortably lived, and where in time, reluctantly, Thavi assumed the role of surrogate father to his siblings. The documentary directed by cinematographer Ellen Kuras and co-directed by Thavi himself, Thavisouk Phrasavath, covers 23 years in his and the family’s life.
All sorts of materials are marshaled for the film, including news footage and languorously gorgeous new shots—sheer poetry—combining river-clad imagery of a man as the sun is either coming up or going down and the mother’s voiceover recounting ancient Laotian mythology: a world of dreams. Now and then the film is magnificent; regrettably, though, there are too many passages of Mom sitting and painfully rummaging through her wrecked life, and the whole thing feels rigged for Thavi’s present-day visit to Laos, where he briefly reunites with his lost sisters and their very elderly grandmother. Indeed, throughout Nerakhoon sentimental music aims to tell us what to feel and how much to feel, like John Williams’s filthy music in the despicable Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg, 1993).
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