Beautiful nightmare

Pub date February 24, 2009
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

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If the U.S. really is entering a new period of transparency and team-playing, that might take a while to swallow for some nations that have known us best as an unreliable fair-weather ally. One of the Vietnam War’s lesser-heralded tragedies was what happened to neighboring Laos. Early in Ellen Kuras’ The Betrayal, we see JFK in 1961 saying of Laos, "All we want is peace, not war. A truly neutral government, not a Cold War pawn." Whatever earnestness that statement possessed, it was raped under Presidents Johnson and Nixon, despite all official denials.

The CIA drafted and trained Laotian military personnel as secret guerilla units gunning for North Vietnamese fighters along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. U.S. aircraft began dropping bombs on Laos — 3 million tons’ worth over nine years, more than in both World Wars combined. Vietcong were targeted, but civilians suffered plenty from the bombings as well as from a Yank-supported South Vietnamese invasion.

Nixon’s disgraced resignation drove one last nail in the coffin of this "unpopular" war. The 1975 "fall of Saigon" withdrawal was accompanied by abrupt pullouts of American interests and muscle in Laos. Though not quite as ghastly as what ensued in collaborating Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, the fast overthrow of Laos’ "neutral" U.S.-backed monarchial government by Communist forces had similar consequences. Pathet Lao’s oppressive new regime closed itself to the world, arresting, executing, or otherwise persecuting anyone suspected of ties to the prior epoch.

The Betrayal fascinates like other rare, intimate documentaries shot over long periods — Michael Apted’s Seven Up series being the most famous example. This one began a quarter-century ago, when Kuras contacted 19-year-old Thavisouk Phrasavath (credited as co-director and co-writer, and the film’s sole editor) for lessons in speaking Lao for an unrelated project. His personal story — past, present, evolving — took up any time not occupied by Kuras’ cinematography career, which has encompassed features and docs by Spike Lee, Rebecca Miller, Harold Ramis, Jonathan Demme, Mary Harron, Jim Jarmusch, Michel Gondry, and Sam Mendes.

Phrasavath’s father was a Royal Army officer seduced by better pay and the promise that his own country’s best interests were being served — even when he plotted its bombing targets. After long service, the Americans’ abrupt pullout got him arrested, sent to re-education camp, and assumed executed by loved ones. Considered traitorous along with her 10 children, his wife Orady desperately bribed smugglers for their safe expatriation. When that happened, it was so sudden she had to leave two briefly absent daughters behind. She chose the United States as an asylum destination, believing that a government grateful for her husband’s sacrifices would "take care of us when we get to America." The clan got dumped in a decrepit mid-1980s Brooklyn apartment shared with other Southeast Asian refugees, next to a crack house and surrounded by gang violence.

Kuras was there then, and later on when some startling changes occurred in the Phrasavath family saga. But The Betrayal is as soft on narrative detailing as its color palette, which finds rainforest green and Buddhist monk-robe saffron echoed even in the harshest New Yawk/Joisey landscapes. Her visual impressionism is a gift, especially in the abstract illustration of teenage Phrasavath’s solo escape across the Mekong. But such poetical shorthand also frustrates — we’d like to know far more than Kuras and Phrasavath allow about what happened to immediate blood beyond himself and his mom.

But that stuff could be forgivably relegated to DVD extras. A rare new documentary that really belongs on the big screen, The Betrayal‘s flowing lyricism gracefully connects a poignant family history to larger socio-political and extra-large spiritual themes. It’s an almost sinfully beautiful movie about ugly global realities.

THE BETRAYAL opens Fri/27 in Bay Area theaters.