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DVD Reviews

HTF DVD Review: THE BETRAYAL (Nerakhoon)



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#1 of 3 OFFLINE   Michael Reuben

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Posted September 10 2009 - 07:13 AM

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The Betrayal
(Nerakhoon)
 
 
Studio: Cinema Guild
Rated: NR
Film Length: 96 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 (enhanced for 16:9)
Audio: English DD 5.1
Subtitles: English (forced)
MSRP: $29.95
Discs: 1
Package: Keepcase
Insert: Yes
Theatrical Release Date: Nov. 21, 2008
DVD Release Date: Sept. 1, 2009
 
 
Introduction:
 
The Betrayal was one of five finalists for the 2009 documentary Oscar, losing to the engaging and audience-friendly Man on Wire. Its director is the accomplished cinematographer Ellen Kuras, whose work includes Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the recent Sam Mendes film Away We Go, features and documentaries for Spike Lee and documentaries for Martin Scorsese (she was part of the elite crew that shot Shine a Light). The film focuses on the remarkable life of Thavisouk Phrasavath, whose history Kuras spent twenty-three years – yes, you read that right: 23 – following and recording. The story is that of a man and his family and, at the same time, that of a country which became a pawn in a geopolitical chess game among world powers.
 
 
The Feature:
 
Most Americans know that the United States fought a war in Vietnam, but most are unaware that we also fought a war in neighboring Laos, because the U.S. government has never admitted doing so. On paper, Laos had been declared a “neutral” country during the Kennedy administration. In fact, neither North Vietnam nor the United States respected its neutrality, with the North Vietnamese running major supply lines through Laos (the so-called “Ho Chi Minh Trail”) and the U.S. doing everything it could, short of a full-fledged invasion, to disrupt those supply lines. The chief American weapons were aerial bombardment, on a scale that exceeded the tonnage dropped in World Wars I and II combined, and the recruitment of local military personnel to work for the U.S. government as proxies.
 
One of the officers who accepted the American offer was the father of Thavisouk Phrasavath (known as “Thavi”) and his nine brothers and sisters. The attraction for Phrasavath Sr. was simple: The Americans paid better.
 
But in 1975 the United States withdrew entirely from Southeast Asia. Laos fell under the domination of the Pathet Lao, which was, to put it mildly, unsympathetic to anyone who had worked for the American government. One night, Thavi watched his father, whom he idolized, marched out of their home, placed in a jeep and driven off into the night.
 
Thavi’s mother began looking for someone who could be bribed to arrange an escape for her and her children. Thavi decided that he could not wait and made his own way to Thailand, where he lived on the street for two years until his mother and siblings managed to join him after a harrowing boat trip across the Mekong River. His mother had been forced to leave two of her daughters behind, an agonizing circumstance that haunts her to this day.
 
The family reached the United States, which they entered legally as refugees. Thavi’s father had always told him that America was a great country that would take care of them, but the reality the family encountered was very different. They were stuffed into a single room in Brooklyn with little to eat, no money and no one to assist their transition into an unfamiliar society. On the street, the children were insulted with racial epithets, and in the rare instance when anyone asked where they were from, no one knew anything about Laos.
 
Like many immigrants before them, they formed alliances with others of their own kind who had found their way here. And as with other similarly situated groups, many turned to crime, particularly among the youth, who formed gangs. (The evolution portrayed in the Godfather films is an archetype because it’s true, but in the real world, it seldom has the Corleone family’s tragic grandeur.) Thavi’s mother fears for her children, but at the same time she finds herself afraid of them.
 
The Betrayal is a challenging film, because Kuras and Thavi (who edited the film and is also credited as “co-director”) push against the conventions of the documentary, even if they weren’t always sure, during the film’s long evolution, exactly where they were headed. The film is not so much a “biography”, in which Thavi’s life is presented as a series of events in chronological order, as it is Thavi’s search through his own memory and that of others (principally, his mother) for the forces that forged his identity. The filmmaking serves this purpose by expressing emotion as much as conveying fact. There are history lessons along the way, but the dominant voice is that of a cinematic poet reflecting on experience, recovering it, refining it. (The meditative tone frequently reminded me of the great Korean film Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring.)
 
A notable example is the sequence in which Thavi describes his escape from Laos into Thailand. Obviously no camera was present to record that escape; so Thavi’s voiceover is illustrated by an almost abstract sequence of images jaggedly cut together, some of them archival, some of them filmed later, but the net effect of which is to convey a sense of the adult man recalling his youthful terror and uncertainty as he fled toward a future that was unknown at the time but no longer is.
 
Because it is driven by this sense of searching for meaning in the past, The Betrayal does not follow a straight line through Thavi’s life, and it frequently skips around to focus on key turning points. In the last half hour of the film, several such events are presented, and they are both dramatic – literally so: a screenwriter could not have scripted a more gripping third act – and intensely emotional. Perhaps the biggest surprise in the film is that it is able to deliver a conclusion that provides closure, yet leaves one with a sense of life’s continuing possibilities.
 
 
 
Video:
           
The 1:85:1 16:9-enhanced image is clean and and as detailed as the source material permits. Much of The Betrayal is taken from archival footage, including photographs and newsreels, and there are limits to how good such material can look when it is digitized and enlarged. Within these limits, however, the DVD provides a pleasing image with relatively little video noise and without obvious artifacts. Contemporary footage was shot on 16mm or Super8 (and sometimes on portable video cameras), but a surprising amount of detail is visible in these sections – a tribute, no doubt, to Kuras’ instinctive skills as a cinematographer. Black levels are more than adequate, and the color rendition is excellent, which is especially important in a film where striking colors are often used to render tone and mood.
 
 
 
Audio:
 
The DD 5.1 track has a surprising amount of ambient sound effects for a film of this sort; these would have had to have been created in a mixing studio after the fact, but that does not make them sound artificial, because the sound editing and mixing are first-rate. Howard Shore’s elegiac score is nicely rendered by all channels, so that it seems to float above the narrating voices that emanate from the center speaker. This is an excellent mix, well-presented.
 
There are no subtitle selections on the menu, but all of the Lao speech and voiceover are subtitled in English. Since there does not appear to be any subtitle track, these are either “burned-in” or forced subtitles.
 
 
Special Features:
 
Unless otherwise indicated, the video for special features is 4:3.
 
Commentary by Director Ellen Kuras and Executive Producer Cara Mertes. As a relative latecomer to the project, Mertes adopts the role of interviewer and lets Kuras do most of the talking. The commentary ranges widely over Kuras’ personal history with Thavi as well as their working relationship, which evolved in unexpected ways during the film’s 23-year gestation. She also comments on her deepening relationship with the Phrasavath family and provides technical insight into the construction of the film. If it isn’t already obvious from the film, it is certainly clear by the end of the commentary that for Kuras Betrayal was as much a major life experience as it was a film, and that she discovered it as she went along more than “directing” it in the traditional sense.
 
Q&A Interview with Director Ellen Kuras and Co-director Thavisouk Phrasavath (30:39) (1:85, enhanced for 16:9). In separate interviews that are intercut together, Kuras and Phrasavath discuss the origins of the film, the lengthy (and often interrupted) process of creating it together, the response of audiences when the film began to screen at festivals and elsewhere, and their lives (especially that of Thavi and his family) since the film. Both subjects provide substantial and relevant insights, but CAUTION: This extra should not be viewed before an initial viewing of the film, as it reveals certain developments that are best unknown when first encountering The Betrayal.
 
Conversation with Director Ellen Kuras and Composer HowardShore (12:11) (1:85:1, non-enhanced). Prompted by Kuras, Shore describes how he first learned of the film from Thelma Schoonmaker (Martin Scorsese’s long-time editor), and how deeply he responded to the early version he saw. He describes how we went about composing the score and even explains how his experience working on Lord of the Rings provided him with techniques that proved useful on The Betrayal (although the scores sound nothing alike).
 
Archival Footage and Selected Newsreels (10:35). The newsreels are from the Kennedy administration, and they’re fascinating, not only for the substantive information about U.S. policy toward Laos, but also for the style of reporting that prevailed in that era.
 
Additional Montage Footage of Laos (4:06). Just as the name indicates, this is additional footage from the Laos portion of the film, but it’s more than random images. The shots have been thoughtfully and lovingly edited together, with a soundtrack that emphasizes their calm and deliberate pace. It’s a study in miniature of much of the film’s editing technique.
 
Excerpts of Thavisouk’s First Interview (1986) (4:05). After spending so much time with the self-possessed forty-something Thavi who is our guide through The Betrayal, it’s a shock to encounter the self-conscious semi-articulate twenty-something who first sat down in front of Kuras’ camera. But certain elements remain constant, most of all the burning eagerness to get the story told.
 
Thavisouk Returns to Laos (7:17). These wordless scenes overflow with emotion, but they are best viewed after both the main feature and the Q&A with Kuras and Thavi, both of which are necessary to provide the full factual underpinning.
 
Omitted Scene: Thavi Pays Respects by Becoming a Buddhist Monk for Two Days (4:28). The scene shows Thavi following a Lao tradition for mourning a relative or close friend (in this instance Thavi’s godfather) by serving as a novice in a Buddhist temple. I suspect the scene was omitted because it took the viewer too far away from the thrust of the main narrative.
           
Filmmakers’ biographies. Textual bios and credits for Ellen Kuras and Thavisouk Phrasavath.
 
Theatrical Trailer. An effective trailer that gives an accurate sense of the film.
 
Photo Gallery. App. 34 photos from a variety of locations and eras.
 
Essay by D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus. This essay by two noted documentarians is included as a printed insert to the DVD case.
 
 
 
In Conclusion:
 
The Betrayal had limited distribution in theaters, and I doubt the DVD will be on the shelves at the local Best Buy. But anyone interested in how talented filmmakers are expanding the possibilities of the documentary form, or in this near-buried chapter of American and Lao history, should seek it out.
 
 
 
Equipment used for this review:
 
Denon 955 DVD player
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display
Lexicon MC-8
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
SVS SB12-Plus sub

COMPLETE list of my disc reviews.       HTF Rules / 200920102011 Film Lists

#2 of 3 OFFLINE   Richard Gallagher

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Posted September 11 2009 - 02:34 PM

This sounds like a very worthwhile film. The U.S. military operations in Laos probably were the worse-kept "secrets" of the Vietnam war. I was on an aircraft carrer in 1969 and 1970 and I prepared many of the strike reports which were sent out after bombing missions, so I saw for myself how manyof them involved targets in Laos. Typically they were "interdiction" strikes, designed to disrupt the flow of supply trucks from North Vietnam. I'm not convinced that they were very effective, as oftentimes it seemed that the pilots weren't sure what they had hit with their bombs.

Rich Gallagher

#3 of 3 OFFLINE   Neil Middlemiss

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Posted September 11 2009 - 04:06 PM

Michael - you have sincerely intrigued me. I saw Man on Wire and was entertained, but the subject of this film alone arouses more curiosity in me than any other doc for a while. Thanks for taking the time to thoroughly review this and give it some exposure (and for giving me a documentary to look forward to again).
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