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First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 09/20/17 09:46:20

"Worth a big-screen watch."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

It's a bit surprising to me that "First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers" didn't have its name cut in half during the transition from page to screen, and not just because it may look unwieldy on a VOD menu (let alone a marquee in the small number of theaters that are booking a Netflix original). That title implies adult reflection, while the film is almost entirely devoted to the child's point of view. That's often a source of its power, although it sometimes denies the film some of the clarity director Angelina Jolie looks to find elsewhere.

It opens in April 1975, when Loung Ung (Sareum Srey Moch) was six or seven, the second-youngest of six siblings whose father (Phoeung Kompheak) works for the government - or at least, until the Khmer Rouge takes over and they, like everyone else, are forced to flee Phnom Penh. The father is canny enough to hide his identity as the family eventually winds up in one of the camps where the KR is trying to rebuild the country on communist ideals, but there's no end to the danger and cruelty to be found in post-revolution Kampuchea.

Jolie and the real-life Loung Ung collaborated on the screenplay (from Ung's book), and mostly keeping this a kid's-eye-view account has its pluses and minuses. It's important to note, for instance, that Jolie bookends the film with more documentary-style bits that highlight America's contributions to the rise of this regime, and while that's an important subject, it's not what the rest of the film is about. There's a majesty to the final shot that emphasizes that the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror was, though destructive, an aberration, and that point of view seems like a bit of an afterthought within the film itself.

Instead, most of the film focuses on Loung, and it's the sort of film that could become detached because it can be very hard for adult filmmakers to truly get into a child's mind. The filmmakers get a quality performance Sareum Srey Moch, the young actress playing Loung, and that goes a long way, though it's also the impression that audience gets of Loung owes a lot to Jolie and editors Xavier Box & Patricia Rommel knowing how long to hold something or how much to reveal. The main qualities that allow her to survive are being observant and careful, not always things that come across well in a performance alone. As the group works together, Moch captures the rapid maturation that Loung must go through, while Jolie and her crew piece together just what she's seeing and filing away very well. She's able to be quiet and still stand out in an environment that emphasized homogeneity at the point of a gun, although some moments are maybe a bit opaque - there's not much sense of whether indoctrination is taking or not, for instance.

Jolie also makes this a heck of a film to experience visually, and it's often how she communicates most effectively. She and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle use a lot of wide, overhead shots, and as the film goes on, she continues to do so, but the meaning changes: They go from making things bigger by showing scale of what the Ungs have found themselves in the middle of to reducing human activity to that of ants. She's careful with the beauty of her environment, too; it's never so lush as to overshadow the human brutality occurring, but it always seems like something that would be seared into Loung's memory, while other things seem to exist only as fragments, for better or worse. The closest thing the film has to a big action scene has a special kind of horror to it as Loung and the viewers are fully aware that she's only surviving because she knows how minefields are out together from helping set them up. It's a scene Jolie handles very well; many films would miss the price Loung was paying by making it seem like her survival was the point of going through what she did before.

It's canny enough filmmaking on Jolie's part that "First They Killed My Mother" is worth recommending even if it perhaps isn't quite as intense as others on the subject. It's also worth checking out during its likely-brief run in theaters even if one subscribes to Netflix, as the careful work in how its shot may not come across quite the same way on a smaller screen.

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