Currently streaming on Netflix is Angelina Jolie’s fifth directorial project, First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, a 2017 Khmer biographical historical drama based on Loung Ung’s memoir of the same title.
The film, which premiered at the Toronto International Festival and Telluride International Festival in 2017, is set in the harrowing period of the Communist Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s.
In First They Killed My Father, we receive a simplified education by Jolie to understand the genocide in Cambodia, where an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians were killed from execution, starvation, or illness under the four-year Khmer Rouge regime. All this from the eyes of a child.
In 1975 Cambodia, five-year-old girl Loung’s (Sareum Srey Moch) comfortable life in Phnom Penh is shattered when the Communist organization, the Angkar, parades into the capital city and orders everyone to leave their homes and bid their lives farewell.
As Loung’s large family (she is one of seven children), headed by her government-employed dad (Pheoung Kompheak), silently marches towards a life of autarky in the countryside, they are forced to embrace a nation working towards “self-sufficiency” and agricultural collectivism.
With a screenplay adaptation by Jolie and Ung, the film is entirely the point of view of Loung; we observe and experience the atrocities through her innocent, little girl eyes. The camera switches from Loung’s intelligent face to the “horror” unfurling before her.
That’s where the problem lies: there is lack of horror. Although you occasionally witness violence and severe hunger, Jolie is more focused on the spoken policies of the Khmer Rouge era, and the threat mostly comes from semi-cartoonish soldiers, barking orders in a tone of voice that suggests self-consciousness. There is a scripted lilt to the way they speak, taking away a sense of authenticity.
The child actress who plays Loung has an expressive face, and Jolie loves capturing this brave little girl with her camera, trying hard to connect us to the child’s stoicism and quiet strength. But understanding the situation purely through the eyes of a very small and brave child, we see the Khmer Rouge on a superficial level.
The treatment is shallow and monotonous. All it does is provide a literal portrait of a child in the middle of a national tragedy. And the dialogue, as understood with the aid of English subtitles, is very elementary, depriving us from getting a deeper, more incisive comprehension of the evil regime’s madness.
As what the movie title reveals, Loung’s dad, an enemy of the regime, will be killed. So Jolie often trains the camera to the father while Loung observes him. He emits a kind, loving and calm attitude towards the regime, but the actor seems aware of the camera — his eyes not evoking the pain and horror of the situation, but Jolie’s script and direction.
The cinematography is unremarkable — capturing stiff, scripted, self-conscious actors, then pulling away for an aerial shot to signal the transition to a new chapter of Loung’s memoir.
Sometimes Jolie incorporates dream sequences, of Loung’s subconscious going back to the past when life used to be happy and normal. Sometimes the dreams are prophetic, depicting brutal events happening outside of Loung’s world.
Apart from the child protagonist, the only other raw, authentic performance comes from the actress who plays Loung’s mother (Socheata Sveng). Her pain and anxiety and distress resonate through you, as if she is the only one who understands their hellish existence.
There are moments when your heart twists in pain, but with Jolie’s rudimentary, sterilized and flat treatment, you experience a frequent urge to skip the movie forward. It is never absorbing or emotionally engaging. It’s boring. And sometimes, it feels staged. There were plenty of times when I would pause the movie to pee, then I’d end up snacking, or playing with my niece, or cleaning my ears, or checking my Facebook, then I’d remember I have a movie review deadline and head back to resume the movie.
If you’re a huge fan of Jolie as a film director (her previous works, if you’re unaware, are A Place in Time, In the Land of Blood and Honey, Unbroken and By the Sea), then stream this. Otherwise, probably just get Ung’s memoir, or Google the Khmer history, or watch the 1984 higher-rated Khmer thriller The Killing Fields (which I haven’t seen but is a pretty famous film for receiving a bunch of Oscar nominations).
For a movie that depicts one of the most terrible, savage times in the history of mankind, it’s amazing how Jolie keeps you mostly detached.
2 out of 5 stars