Film Highlight: The Betrayal

Thavisouk Phrasavath in Ellen Kuras' documentary, The Betrayal
courtesy of The Cinema Guild

Some 23 years in the making, Ellen Kuras's first film as a director is a portrait of Laotian refugee Thavisouk Phrasavath. The Betrayal (Nerakhoon) is also a haunting flashback to the lush green and fiery orange phantasmagoria of wartime Indochina. The son of a Laotian army officer, and a baby when the first U.S. advisors arrived in neighboring South Vietnam, Phrasavath grew up in the zone. He escaped Laos by himself at age 12, swimming across the Mekong to Thailand and living for two years on the streets until his mother and siblings joined him. Long one of the independent film movement's leading cinematographers, Kuras had yet to shoot anything when she discovered Phrasavath and his family living in a Brooklyn housing project and embarked on their epic collaboration. Although she documented Phrasavath's life for over two decades, Kuras seems particularly fascinated by things that could not be filmed directly. The Betrayal eschews straightforward chronology, incorporating photographs of colonial Laos, TV footage of JFK, newsreels of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, bombs falling, towns burning, and clips from a Pathet Lao propaganda movie. The mode is free-associative, but the movie's blunt, accusatory title fits multiple periods of its subject's life. The Betrayal is refined, even delicate filmmaking. Subtly off-speed and suffused with late-afternoon light, the movie weaves through time. Which is the dream, America or Laos? Impressionistic and lyrical, as well as somber and gripping, The Betrayal conveys a ceaseless flow. It's as if the filmmaker has opened a window onto a parallel world traveling beside our own.

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