First They Killed My Father opens in the most blatant, contrived way possible: with a montage of political heads that include Richard Nixon discussing broken foreign relations while the Rolling Stone’s “Sympathy for the Devil” plays over the top.
What this montage does is set the period and the atmosphere. It is 1975; we are in Cambodia at the onset of the Khmer Rouge. The anti-Western mindset used as a means of oppression, director Angelina Jolie nevertheless reminds us that America helped instigate this bloody regime.
In First They Killed My Father, this regime is seen through the eyes of a child—Loung Ung (played by Sreymoch Sareum, based on the real-life activist who co-wrote the film with Jolie). As such, it is often a disjointed understanding of the ideological genocide of the Cambodian people.
We do hear up-front exactly what purpose the regime serves, when a soldier of the “Angkar” declares that there will be no more money or class, nor a need for the people to retain personal belongings. It is perhaps too obvious an expository moment in a film that otherwise masks its realities through the innocent eyes of a child.
Elsewhere in the film, Loung hears snippets of conversation between her parents, dialogue that is so quiet that it is almost imperceptible. In these moments, Loung seems to understand the words but not the larger implication of what her parents are saying.
The girl’s observations, too, make for moments of visual clarity that are handled intelligently by Jolie. Whether it be static images of an insect rendered helpless on its back and a corpse being pushed into the tide of a stream, or the rack focus onto a soldier’s rifle as her father gets sent away, the visual composition of the film is a mark of promise for Jolie.
This is certainly Jolie’s most ambitious film, and it is one that will likely see little in the way of American exposure, despite the fact that it has received a Netflix release. This is unfortunate, largely because Jolie’s intent seems to be to educate a Western audience about a struggle that America was at once instrumental in establishing and quick to brush under the rug.
Much of the struggle of Loung is internalized, making Sareum’s performance one that is pivotal to the effectiveness of the film. Luckily, she takes on the role with a quiet presence that is captivating.
There is a scene in the film where she must lie to a soldier as she and her sister try to escape the regime. She tells the man that she is an orphan, and, in a rare moment of compassion from the regime, the man flinches. His voice shaky, he lets them go, but Loung remains resolute and stern. The stakes of her situation have become realized, and in a way her childhood is left behind at the crossroads that she took to get to this soldier.
With Sareum’s intense performance, First They Killed My Father is a harrowing journey through the fractured community of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. Beyond the aforementioned scene between Loung and the soldier, there may be little nuance in how the regime is depicted, but Jolie directs the child’s perspective in an engaging and illuminating way. The film might feel overlong and deliberate in its slow pace, but it does this so that the viewer gets an adequate sense of the horrors that, for a child, seem to be unending.
First They Killed My Father: A-
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)