Film Review: The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)

Ellen Kuras’ documentary highlights the struggles of some long-forgotten victims of the Vietnam War, the Laotians, whose country fell to the Communist Pathet Lao after America’s withdrawal.

The Betrayal (Nerakhoon), the story of a Laotian family’s agonizing efforts to adapt to a new life in the United States, began 23 years ago for cinematographer Ellen Kuras (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). The documentary marks her directorial debut, along with co-director Thavisouk Phrasavath. Initially, “Thavi,” a native of Laos, was Kuras’ link to the Laotian community in New York City, but he eventually became her filmmaking partner and the focus of her story. That biographical aspect, of the Phrasavath family’s post-Vietnam immigration, doesn’t meld easily with the documentary’s encapsulated history of the Vietnam War. Failing to deliver on historical context and on a nuanced picture of the family’s displacement, The Betrayal is unfortunately more a picture of liberal hand-wringing than social commentary.

While commendable for revisiting this little-remembered, sanguinary aspect of the Vietnam War, The Betrayal never resolves its twin threads of biography and historical documentary. Viewers will be confused at the outset by the poorly edited mèlange of different sorts of flashbacks—dramatic re-enactments, actual footage shot earlier in the project, and snippets of the family’s present circumstances, including Thavi’s return to Laos. Thavi swam the Mekong River to escape to Thailand at 12 years of age, shortly after his father was arrested by the Pathet Lao for his collaboration with American forces during the war. The arrest endangered the entire family.

It is the source of the Phrasavaths’ feelings of betrayal which lies at the core of the documentary—their unshakable belief in a protective patriarchy, in their father’s heroic status, in the Laotian monarchy, in French Indochina, in the American army, and then, for a short time, in the new Communist government of the Pathet Lao. Unfortunately, what is obvious to the viewer remains in the subtext for the filmmakers and their subjects. That belief in patriarchy, a result of culture, social structure and spirituality, is what led the family to expect salvation on our shores. The filmmakers, plying the easier path of sentimentality, never explore the psychological complexity of the disenfranchisement suffered by the Phrasavaths. Instead, they emphasize the everyday humiliations of poverty—the better to place blame.

Rather than illustrating particular aspects of the Laotian Diaspora, the filmmakers detail the U.S. government’s failures, its “betrayal” of the family, using Thavi’s memories to fuel the narrative. While the United States’ excessive bombing of Laos was morally reprehensible, a more erudite explanation of the Cold War logic during the Nixon presidency would have provided context. For instance, the North Vietnamese were in Laos when we bombed the country, and the Laotian government’s abandonment of its own people did not begin with the U.S. presence there. So, absent the lens of history, it is difficult to sympathize with the filmmakers’ facile criticism of our subsequent treatment of the family.

Eleven members of the Phrasavath family were flown to New York City after a two-year stay in a Thai refugee camp. Then, like all immigrants, they were subjected to America’s seemingly indifferent welfare system. Exiled to an apartment in a building that housed a crack business, the Phrasavaths were nevertheless granted asylum and given some financial support, although it proved inadequate. Whether or not they received other help isn’t clear. What the Phrasavaths did not receive was the protection they kept expecting from every authority, including their father, who survived and who delivers the final salvo in a long line of betrayals.

The Betrayal is a portrait of dysfunction, aggravated by social upheaval and healed by the trials and tribulations of immigration—surely not what the filmmakers intended. Were it not for Thavi’s tale of the family’s belief in an ancient apocalyptic vision, the documentary would lack the spiritual underpinning it finally achieves in the last 20 minutes, an illustration of what saves many immigrants to these shores, whether they arrived on a slave ship or in steerage. The Betrayal is not a story of betrayal as much as it is one of survival, but even in the final intertitles there is no glow of redemption. That is because Thavi and his mother cling to the betrayals rather than to the strength of their continued existence—and because the filmmakers chose sentiment over a consciousness of transformation.