A film slow in its delivery, “Betrayal” delivers a stinging criticism of life in America. When foreigners come here for freedom, they may get more freedom than they wanted
Ellen Kuras is best known for her widely acclaimed work at cinematographer / director of photography on such hits as “Be Kind Rewind,” “Neil Young: Heart of Gold (2006),” “The Ballad of Jack and Rose,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “Coffee and Cigarettes” (two segments),” “Analyze That,” and “Blow.” This is her first work as writer/director and although the documentary format limits her ability to flex her creative muscles the film comes off in fine style.
The writing and directing credits are shared with Thavisouk Phrasavath a Laotian writer, director and editor of independent films. Thavisouk and his family immigrated to America after a harrowing escape from Laos and the Pathet Lao after the end of the Viet Nam war. His father aided the American bombing efforts in Laos aimed at plugging Viet Cong supply routes and was subsequently denounced by the Pathet Lao. This meant years of hard labor for him in Laotian “re-education” camps and a dishonorable existence for his extended family.
Although his father chose to stay (and/or was captured before he could leave), Thavisouk swam the Mekong river to Thailand supported by inflated plastic bags and escaped the country. He was eventually reunited with his mother and siblings in America when they were provided asylum, of sorts, in Brooklyn, New York.
The film is actually four stories. The first story is the escape and reunification of the family. The second is their life in America. The third story is the story of Thavisouk’s father’s release, escape and re-settlement in America, unbeknownst to the family and the fourth is the story of the family members who stayed behind in Laos.
The value of this film lies in its ability to quickly move beyond the dramatic story of the family’s hair-raising escape from Laos and focus on their life in the US. Most audiences will not find it surprising that Thavisouk’s family had it hard in America. Their life was beyond hard. In fact it was a form of death on earth, wherein their former life would be lost and they would be forced to live a new one. Worst of all they had almost no control over their new life; it not only lacked the discipline and controls of their old one but they had no way of seeing the future. Their future was the random baseless gang activity on the street and the howls and ejaculations of their fellow tenants in the crack-house in which they lived.
Living this existence for some years the family is learning to live with their new homeland. Then one day they learn that they father and husband has left Laos and has relocated to Florida. The family is reunited with surprising results. Finally, in the end, Thavisouk is reunited with his two sisters who chose to remain behind in Laos. They appear on film for only the briefest of scenes, perhaps fearing repercussions from the government. They seem well enough, and overjoyed to see their brother.
In the end the family has taken two directions. Some chose to stay in the homeland, some to come to America. In America the father left the family and mother and siblings have little left of their culture. Their new culture is the drugged up streets of America’s inner city.
The lesson of the film is that freedom and moral discipline may be mutually exclusive. The audience is presented with two alternate fates for the family. The first fate is that of the father, who was sentenced to fill in craters left by American bombs, with a teaspoon. The second fate is the loss of the family’s cultural heritage in America. In the first case the people staying behind lose their freedom but keep their identity. In the second case they are given complete freedom but at the expense of their identity. This tells a story not only of the family, but illustrates a bigger picture about the freedom and identity of Americans at large. Perhaps all Americans have lost some of their moral direction because of the vast freedoms they enjoy.
Presented in a cool and logical manner, the film will not be a hit in the conventional manner because it does not evoke emotion in American terms, through shouting and gesticulation. Maybe some of the Asians’ inscrutable demeanor rubbed off on the director. It doesn’t evoke the emotion of Ramin Bahrani’s “Chop Shop” released in February of this year. Just as important, the latter film incorporated outstanding photography, with the images standing out as clearly as the dialog. In “Betrayal” the cinematography is mostly plain, straight on shots. The interior shots are simply of rooms and the exterior shots are more close-ups. There is none of the textures of the inner city; the mud, the rainwater, refuse, bricks and potholed pavement.
In spite of the overly evenhanded manner of its execution, its lessons are more profound on a political and moral level. In the final analysis the film is not just a critique of life in America for immigrants but for all Americans.