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Originally published March 12, 2009 at 3:49 PM | Page modified March 12, 2009 at 3:50 PM

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Movie review

A family's haunting journey from Laos to the U.S.

Ellen Kuras' mesmerizing Academy Award-nominated documentary "The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)," shot over a 23-year period, examines a question voiced by the Laotian man at its center: "What happens to people without a land, a place to call home?"

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 4 stars

"The Betrayal (Nerakhoon),"a documentary directed by Ellen Kuras. 96 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences. Grand Illusion, through Thursday.

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Ellen Kuras' mesmerizing Academy Award-nominated documentary "The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)," shot over a 23-year period, examines a question voiced by the man at its center: "What happens to people without a land, a place to call home?"

At 12, Thavisouk Phrasavath left his family behind in Laos, fleeing certain persecution: His father, who had worked with the U.S. during the covert war waged there during the Vietnam War (in which, the film tells us, almost 3 million tons of bombs were dropped upon Laos), had been declared an enemy of the state and sent to a labor camp after a new Communist regime established power. Thavi, as he was known, didn't know if he would ever see his father again, and lived as a street child in Bangkok for two years, waiting for his mother and siblings.

The Phrasavaths (minus the father) finally reunited and in 1981 immigrated to a squalid apartment in Brooklyn, N.Y., where more hardship awaited them: poverty, gang violence and the rending of family ties. It was a devastating time for Thavi's mother, who expected that the U.S. government would take care of the family because of her husband's military service.

That this country turned its back on Laotians after their usefulness was over is the betrayal that the film's title echoes; another betrayal, unfolding in the middle of the film, is more personal and equally wrenching to watch. Kuras, a cinematographer who's recently shot films for Spike Lee and Michel Gondry, has woven an astonishing tale from many years' worth of footage. The family's quiet voices speak of heartbreak, even as the smiling faces of grandchildren at the movie's end shine with hope. Shot like a work of art — Kuras has an almost magical eye for capturing sunlight on water, as if it were a living thing — "The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)" is a remarkable achievement, haunting the viewer long after it ends.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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