First They Killed My Father (2017)

27 Jun

5981d31a4528e666038b571d-750-562.png

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I’ve always found it interesting when a historical tragedy is seen from the perspective of a child. How do they react to the horrible things we read about in history books today? What do they do when trying to survive these events? Steven Spielberg’s “Empire of the Sun” was effective at showing the coming-of-age of a young privileged boy becoming wiser and more resilient after time in a Japanese internment camp during WWII. And here, we have Angelina Jolie’s “First They Killed My Father,” in which a 5-year-old girl endures labor camps and child-soldier training during the brutal Khmer Rouge regime of Cambodia—a time when about 2 million were either killed by execution or died from starvation in the 1970s.

Based on the memoir of the same name by Loung Ung and adapted by Ung and Jolie, “First They Killed My Father” begins with a look at the middle-class family life of 5-year-old Loung (Sreymoch Sareum) and her loving family in Phnom Penh. She plays with her many siblings, she dances to a pop song on the radio, she lives a life of relative peace that you know is going to be ruined somehow. And then, the Communist Khmer Rouge soldiers take over and force people to leave their homes and evacuate the city, giving the impression that the Americans will bomb it.

Now poor and powerless, Loung and her family are now joining refugees and doing whatever it takes to survive this ordeal. It’s especially sad when we realize beforehand that they will inevitably be separated and brutally beaten and/or killed. Other families are separated, people are executed by the soldiers, and eventually, Loung ends up in a labor camp, where she’s trained as a soldier herself.

Loung witnesses so much destruction and brutality at the age of 5, and much of the film is seen through her perspective. It rides on her facial expressions as she reacts accordingly to these terrible incidents surrounding her. We know she’s too young to fully comprehend the mayhem, but we also know that this is the new normal for her. She does all the things she’s forced to do because that’s what she feels she has to do, because there’s no other choice. It’s actually more powerful than if someone just said of a certain attack, “Oh, how horrifying.” It’s instead reflected on a young child’s face.

Jolie proves to be a strong, capable director here (I’ve yet to see any of her other directorial efforts, including “Unbroken”), and I admire her ability to tell the real Loung Ung’s tragic coming-of-age story without getting preachy (and even creating it with Ung herself; Ung and Jolie wrote the screenplay together). Also great is the cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle, who helps make the film feel bigger than it could’ve been.

My only criticism is the running time of 2 hours and 16 minutes. While Jolie knows for the most part not to let shots or scenes linger for too long, I still think the film could have benefitted from removing a couple scenes here or there, mostly because we already get the point. But then again, I guess since we need this film, it can be as long as it deserves to be. Maybe it’s more of a nitpick than a criticism, but it is what’s keeping me from rating it four stars. (But three-and-a-half is still high enough for me.)

Why do we “need” this film? Because it’s what Ung remembers from a brutal time in history and we shouldn’t forget it. That’s why we need films like this and “Empire of the Sun,” and to be made with talented filmmakers is a bonus. “First They Killed My Father” is a small but important treasure.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: