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First They Killed My Father (2017) Review

First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers is a 2017 historical drama about a Cambodian author and human rights activist who recounts the horrors she suffered as a child under the rule of the deadly Khmer Rouge.

Angelina Jolie has made six films as director, each unlike the other and all sincere and of a deeply personal nature to the filmmaker, even if not all quite work as well as they might. Her latest work, First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers is by far her most accomplished yet, a dramatic yet vibrant and heartbreaking experience that marks Jolie as a more than director, but a visionary who strips away expectations of a what a war film is by unraveling a tragedy through the eyes of an innocent.

We learn at the start a bit of history, where the American bombings of Cambodia and their military exit at the end of the Vietnam War left the ruthless Khmer Rouge, led by future dictator Pol Pot sweeping into the country, they an offshoot of the North Vietnamese Army. They march unopposed into the capital where little Loung Ung (Sareum Srey Moch) lives with her family, including her police officer father. The invaders soon corral everyone out of the city, stripping them of their possessions and pushing them into the countryside. There, she and her family learn a new life, one of extreme hardship that takes everything from them as they are forced to embrace the Angkar way. There is no individualism, no private property and all work is for the common good. Everything under armed, militant guard and oppressive leadership demanding ever more.

This is all viewed through Loung, sometimes in first person, sometimes as if through her one point of view. As a child, things are not as clear, the actions of those around her not always easily understood as she hears words and warnings that she knows must have great meaning but simply does as she is told, mostly just wanting to go back to home she will never see again. Like the rest, her clothes are dyed black and she wears the familiar red-checkered scarf of the movement , working alongside other children in the fields, barely given enough food to eat. It is a game of survival for them all, a harrowing existence.

The greater achievement of First They Killed My Father is how Jolie never once manipulates, something she’s been guilty of before, especially in her other war film Unbroken, a movie that went to extremes in contriving audience emotions. Here though, she shows remarkable restraint, keeping Loung’s experience that of a witness and participant to the worst possible extremes. The daily grind of living impoverished, underfoot of the brutal Khmer Rouge leaders sees her exposed to terrible suffering and mistreatment, yet Jolie is careful to never overdo or make gratuitous these moments. For Loung, this is about discovery and it shapes everything about her destiny. There are horrors everywhere.

First They Killed My Father has great power move, a film that begs us to examine our history as a people. Jolie and the real Loung Ung, who together wrote the screenplay, create a majestic, highly-disturbing film that grips with frightening authenticity. Jolie is deeply respectful of the subject and the people, looking to educate rather than exploit, delivering a devastating cinematic experience. Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle is to be credited as well with his breathtaking imagery of Cambodia. But it is little Sareum Srey Moch who impacts the most, her grounded and hushed performance serving as a gateway to the atrocities, the deeply-distressing world she is plunged within. Her frailty hardened, her innocence lost, she is awash with memories of her life before as she is taught to fight, kill, and hate with extreme prejudice. It’s shattering.

This is not an easy film to watch, a sometimes maddening film that has you swinging from heartbreaking sorrow to terrible anger and fury, all the while wishing you might be able to pluck the little girl from her story and carry her away. First They Killed My Father is a towering achievement, a significant work that deserves wider acclaim. Jolie takes great pains to be as distant from the production as possible, the film wholly about the Cambodian people and they alone. This in itself is remarkable enough, and makes the effort all the more important. Loung’s journey is one you will not forget.

First They Killed My Father is streaming on Netflix right now.

First They Killed My Father (2017) Review

Movie description: First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers is a 2017 historical drama about a Cambodian author and human rights activist who recounts the horrors she suffered as a child under the rule of the deadly Khmer Rouge.

Director(s): Angelina Jolie

Actor(s): Sareum Srey Moch, Phoeung Kompheak, Sveng Socheata

Genre: Historical, Drama

  • Our Score
User Rating 5 (3 votes)
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