Asia House Pan-Asia Film Festival review: The Missing Picture

Still from Cambodian film The Missing Picture, directed by Rithy Panh

Still from Cambodian film The Missing Picture, directed by Rithy Panh

Asia House Pan-Asia Film Festival review: The Missing Picture

03 March 2014

By Jennifer Le

Rithy Panh’s masterpiece The Missing Picture offers much to contemplate through its interesting use of both imagery and language.

Award-winning Cambodian director Rithy Panh looks to retrieve the buried memories of Cambodia’s tragic past and regain his own lost childhood through this film.  He himself is looking to fill in a ‘missing picture’ through the filmmaking process. The result is sad and nostalgic, conveying his own personal experiences of hardship through scenes recreated with claymation combined with real archive footage from the Khmer Rouge period.

The film does not follow a structured plot line, but instead gives cinematic snatches of the director’s own past, compiled in a dream-like sequence that make up this powerfully moving feature-length film.

Panh manages a number of contrasting themes and weaves them seamlessly together. His work illustrates very real and sinister historical events, camouflaged in the playful façade of animation and childlike reveries. An opening scene shows a pair of hands modelling the clay figures with great care and precision. Yet when these figures are brought to life, the effect is eerie and haunting. Permanently gaunt expressions, reminiscent of Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream, are etched on clay faces. Sullen expressions sit unmoving over meagre servings of food, and stand in a military fashion listening to Khmer Rouge ideologies blasting through a tannoy.

The moving footage of the film demonstrates similar contrasts. Bright flashes of colour come through in scenes of traditional Cambodian dance and costume, shown alongside plain black and white footage of Khmer Rouge cadres and Cambodian children on the brink of starvation. Meanwhile, a male voice narrates with a sombre tone. His perceptions and emotions are captured with an intelligent use of language that is both strange and poetic. In effect, he is presenting violent and traumatic events as though telling a children’s story – a contradiction both disturbing and fascinating.

Viewers will not be disappointed with this film which has already received prestigious accolades; it won the Un Certain Regard at the section of the Cannes Film Festival in 2013 and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars in 2014.

However, be sure to sign up for it with the right frame of mind. Go in with a perceptive eye and a sensitive curiosity for this prominent period of recent Asian history. Fans of independent documentary film will be rewarded with a film both thought-provoking and artfully made.

Title: The Missing Picture (original title L’image manquante)

Directed by: Rithy Panh

Released in: UK in January 2014

Starring: Randal Douc

Running time: 92 minutes

Language: French with English subtitles

Plot summary: Rithy Panh uses clay figures, archival footage, and his own narration to recreate the atrocities Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge committed between 1975 and 1979

See it if you like: Documentary films, Hayao Miyazaki’s Grave of the Fireflies

Type of film: Documentary/Claymation

Key selling point: Creative and original cinematography, depicting a seemingly simple yet moving narrative of Rithy Panh’s own experiences during the Khmer Rouge rule.

The Missing Picture was screened at Asia House on Wednesday, March 5 as part of The Asia House Pan-Asia Film Festival 2014.

The film was Cambodia’s entry to the Oscars 2014 and it was one of five nominees in the Best Foreign Language Film section although it was beaten by Italy’s The Great Beauty.


Jennifer Le is currently doing an internship at Asia House.