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Asian American Film Canon Film Reviews

‘Refugee’ turns tearful reunions into a good time–thanks to its confident narrator

Refugee (2003), directed by Spencer Nakasako.

Back in 1975, the Southeast Asia region was heavily impacted by a few major events: the Fall of Saigon, which signaled the end of the Vietnam War, the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, and the capture of Phnom Penh by the Khmer Rouge. That last event established the Democratic Kampuchea regime and sparked the beginning of the Cambodian genocide, leading to the mass executions of millions of Cambodian citizens. As Pol Pot and his administration cracked down on their own people, entire families were torn apart. Those who were able to escape fled to places like Thailand, Vietnam, and other neighboring countries. Others, like Mike Siv, Paul Meas, and David Mark, ended up in America. 

Refugee, directed and produced by Spencer Nakasako, is an hour long documentary about three young Cambodian Americans who decide to travel to Cambodia for the first time since the fall of the regime. With the goal of reconnecting with family members who stayed behind, San Francisco Tenderloin natives Mike, Paul, and David are all heading back with different goals in mind. Mike is going back to Battambang to meet his father and his younger brother for the first time. Paul wants to visit an older sister who he had never met. Mark tags along due to pure curiosity–even though he has relatives in Cambodia who he doesn’t know much about. Armed with a little more than a handheld camera and an affinity for their motherland, Mike, Paul, and David share their heartfelt family reunions with us, giving us emotional first-hand accounts of families (and a country) that were split apart.

David Mark, Paul Meas, and Mike Siv.

Although the film explores the reunification of three separate families, Mike is the film’s central narrator. Mike’s brash post-production voice-overs often guide the viewer through the group’s thoughts and feelings, filling in much-needed contextual blanks and insights throughout the film’s runtime. It makes sense why Mike takes that role. As the most outgoing of the bunch (perhaps that’s because he is the most comfortable at speaking Khmer of the three), Mike’s narration turns what would otherwise be considered a travel vlog today into a more three-dimensional story. 

Though we start to get to know Paul, David, and the families that are on-screen, the viewer builds the closest relationship with Mike due to these constant voice-overs. We start to see Mike as a confident, headstrong, character with a somewhat naive voice of reason. It becomes apparent early on that the film is not told objectively but rather, quite subjectively through his point of view. Though onscreen he’s shown to be happy that he’s in the presence of his father, Mike confides in us the fact that he’s angry at him for not escaping to America with his mother. He tells us about the awkward atmosphere when Paul doesn’t know how to act in front of his sister’s family. He fills us in on his own theories about David’s actions toward his Cambodian family. Refugee is therefore constantly colored by Mike’s own opinions, making him just as fascinating as the things going on in the trip. 

Mike Siv.

But while Refugee does a great job of providing a pathos-based case study of families affected by the Democratic Kampuchea regime, it falls a bit short of contextualizing the severity of life in the country at the time as a whole. Casual mentions of the Cambodian genocide (or as Mike’s dad simply refers to it, “war”) brushes off a lot of the atrocities that occurred during the time period–and it doesn’t quite explain why many Cambodian citizens had to flee the country in the first place. Refugee doesn’t give a lot of context outside of a few text boxes which bookend the film. There are also rarely any references as to what happened after the regime fell, which would have been an interesting topic to explore. One also has to wonder if any of the reactions seen on screen were hindered or played up, especially since cameras and little microphones often intrude into the frame and remind the viewer of their presence. That’s not to mention the occasional shots of the film that seem to have been shot by a fourth, unknown person (Nakasako, perhaps?) which make some moments of the film seem strangely staged (one such scene is when the three get into a bus and drives off while a third party stays behind, filming the family waving goodbye). Moments like these occasionally take you out of the film, reminding you that some degree of the film is engineered to make you feel a certain way.

But at its core, Refugee is still a film that captures pure emotion and familial love. There’s a scene in the middle of the film where Mike is finally in a room with his father, singing “Everytime You Go Away” on a karaoke machine. His father, smiling at the fact that he’s finally with his son, leans on Mike’s shoulder happily, almost as if he’s in a dream. Small instances like these make the film worth watching–giving an insider’s point of view of the tender moments of a family reunited. No, Refugee won’t make you an expert about Cambodian history, but just experiencing these moments of emotional re-connection is enough to warrant watching it. 

Rating: 3.5 / 5

Refugee is being reviewed as part of our series to review “The 20 best Asian American films of the last 20 years” as selected by Brian Hu and a team of Asian American film critics. This entry is #16 on that list.

To view the rest of the entries in this series, click here.


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