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MOVIE REVIEW

'The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)'

January 16, 2009|Sheri Linden

As the documentary "The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)" moves deeper into its story, the meaning of its title grows less categorical and more affecting. Exploring a Lao family's experience during and since the Vietnam War, the film chronicles the treacheries of geopolitics and the upheaval of exile.

Abandonment surfaces at every turn, taking on a more intimate impact well after the Phrasavath family has settled, uneasily, in Brooklyn. Its saga, told with soul-stirring specificity, is also in a sense the history of 20th century bloodshed and dislocation, hauntingly anticipated in 5,000-year-old Lao prophecies.

The film is the directorial debut of Ellen Kuras, the prodigiously talented cinematographer of such features as "Swoon," "I Shot Andy Warhol" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." For 23 years, between projects for Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee, the New York-based D.P. continually returned to "The Betrayal." Her co-director, co-writer and editor, Thavisouk Phrasavath, is also the film's subject, an immigrant whom Kuras met when she set out to learn the Lao language.

"The Betrayal" is very much about language: the sound of Lao in Thavi's unflinching conversations with his mother, his poetic voice-over reminiscences in English and, not least, the language of film as an instrument of memory and recapitulation. Kuras and her collaborator have arranged two decades' worth of material -- cinema verite sequences, photo- graphically enhanced archival imagery and interviews -- with a potent intricacy.

One of 10 children, Thavi had an intimate knowledge of war for as long as he could remember: Jets screeched overhead, rockets pounded his village, wounded neighbors and body bags. His father was among thousands enlisted to fight the North Vietnamese in the CIA's clandestine war in Laos.

But after the communist Pathet Lao took control, Thavi's family was stigmatized by its association with the United States and his father, nabbed by the new rulers for a "seminar" re-education, was assumed killed.

"Resilience" and "fortitude" hardly begin to capture the family's response to its ensuing struggles: dead-of-night es- capes, the purgatory of a Thai refugee camp, the brutal awakening that asylum in the U.S. would not bring them "one step away from heaven," as Thavi's mother believed.

Expecting the country to take care of her family in appreciation of her husband's sacrifice, she instead found herself and her children sharing a room in a tenement crack house, gang warfare raging around them.

"The time will come when the universe will break," according to one Lao prophecy. From the shards we have this work of indelible lyricism.

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'The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)'

MPAA rating: Unrated. In English and Lao with English subtitles.

Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes

Playing: At Laemmle's Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869

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