Movie Review

First They Killed My Father (2017) by Angelina Jolie

Original Name: Moun dambaung Khmer Krahm samleab ba robsa khnhom

Director: Angelina Jolie

Runtime: 136 minutes

Language: Khmer

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“We had a lot of crew members walking around on their knees trying to figure out what she would actually see, what could she actually reach, what could she do. But what was interesting, for me, is it was very clear early that the POV wasn’t just going to be the technical of where she’s at — it was the emotional. Because she’s 5, she’s very distracted. She doesn’t understand what’s happening. She doesn’t want to understand what’s happening.”

It’s interesting to see how Angelina Jolie has shifted from THE superstar actress into commanding behind the camera. The two films she directed so far – the first was written by her, this one was based on a book she read when she was in her 20s on her first time in Cambodia – are her passion projects, in a sense that without her, they’d never see the day of light. First They Killed My Father furthers cements Jolie as a director to be taken seriously. Based on the real story of a young girl when she and her family are forced to leave the home and live at a labor camp during the Khmer Rouge period right just after the Fall of Saigon, the material alone already has powerful statements. It’s a matter of how to tell this story the most effective. Lots of movies about war can’t help but being heavy-handed and preachy with “war is hell” message, and heaps of others can’t stray from the sentimental path. It’s remarkable, as a result, that Jolie finds the right tone for the film.

By focusing entirely on Loung’s, a 5 year-old girl, perspective, who has very little idea what’s going on around her, the film feels emotional distant at times, with sparse dialogue BY DESIGN. It’s a brave choice, for example, that this film doesn’t have any narration, voice-over or details about the location. Instead, the film is told in a matter-of-fact manner, and the camera follows her every step, we see what she herself witnesses on screen. You see, because our child protagonist can’t make sense in any of this mad world, the film spends extra efforts to the details in the backgrounds. At times, we would see her sits on her father’s lap while he’s talking about the war, then gets distracted and plays with her siblings. At other times, we see her walking pass a group of monks who working on field and get harassed by the Khmer Rogue soldiers, or at times we hear the radio announcement about their propaganda messages, and we see her eating the bugs, spider or snake like it’s the most natural thing in the world. The cinematography, likewise, mostly follow her every step. On occasions, it pans out to give us a bird-eye shot, both creating a personal distance, and give us a large-scale impression that her story is just merely one tiny voice in this cruel chapter of Cambodia’s history.

In fact, because Loung is assigned merely as our witness, it’s her mother who undergoes many emotional gripping scenes. From the death of her oldest daughter, to the final moments her husband, to the decision to let her children escape at the cost of her life, she’s on the verge of nervous breakdown all the times and carries the emotional weight Loung’s perspective is sorely lacking. Loung’s older sister, likewise, has many powerful scenes in which her eyes hide the sadness from this brutal condition. Although mostly static, Loung bursts out several times towards the end. It’s those instances where it hits her about the true tragedy of war and the impact it brings. The film struggles, however, whenever it shows multiple Loung’s dream sequences that meant to be contrasted with her current life; but ends up feeling out of place or exposition-heavy (like she dreams about the death of her father. It’s unnecessary), and the film loses its direction a bit at the end with too many little stirring sequences (I can think of four said scenes at the top of my head) that I fail to see which one is supposed to be the film’s emotional climax.

As a whole, however, this film more than holds up. It never forgets that at its core it’s a story told from the point of view of a young girl who managed to survive this dark stage of Cambodia against all odds. Many of the scenes personally hit too close for me, as I’m sure many of those same events happened in Vietnam during the same period. For such a grim story with death can come in every corner, this story is ultimately about hope, about confronting, acknowledging this dark past in order to live on.