First They Killed My Father (2017)

An excellent lead performance by a child aside, this is too postcard picture-perfect and poorly-paced a film about the torrid experiences of surviving the Khmer Rouge regime to be considered essential viewing.  

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Dir. Angelina Jolie
2017 | Cambodia/USA | Biography/Drama/History | 136 mins | 1.85:1 | Khmer, English & French
R21 (Netflix) for mature themes, violence and disturbing images

Cast: Sareum Srey Moch, Phoeung Kompheak, Sveng Socheata
Plot: Cambodian author and human rights activist Loung Ung recounts the horrors she suffered as a child under the rule of the deadly Khmer Rouge.
Awards: Nom. for Best Foreign Language Film (Golden Globes); Official Selection (Toronto)

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Slightly Disturbing – Ideology, Human Condition
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream

Viewed: Netflix
Spoilers: No

With the range of renowned talents involved in this picture, including the likes of Rithy Panh as producer, Anthony Dod Mantle on camera and Marco Beltrami on music, it is hard to imagine Angelina Jolie’s prestige picture for Netflix about the Khmer Rouge could be any duller. 

It is already her fourth narrative feature film as a director, and some say her best work after the mostly unenthusiastic critical reception accorded to her earlier films. 

First They Killed My Father is in the not-so-long line of movies about the Khmer Rouge, most definingly represented by the Oscar-winning success of The Killing Fields (1984), though less-known internationally are Panh’s essential documentaries like S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003), The Missing Picture (2013) and Graves Without a Name (2018). 

Jolie’s movie is possibly the most accessible take on the subject matter, and although it features the vantage point of a child who experiences the horrors of the regime, it is not exactly family-friendly. 

“It’s better to make a mistake and kill an innocent person than to leave an enemy alive.”

Sareum Srey Moch who plays the young Loung Ung (whose book the film was adapted from) is excellent and much of the movie relies heavily on her natural screen presence.  Without her, this poorly-paced film would have crumbled a long time ago. 

While Jolie’s intention is well-meaning, I can’t help but also feel that the film is too sleek and postcard picture-perfect (cue one too many a bird’s eye view shot) to contribute meaningfully to its narrative or characters—a case of flaunting production values sometimes for its own sake. 

There is scant character development and the film repeatedly falls back on the use of flashbacks with the pretence of allowing the audience a way into the character’s frame-of-mind.  

First They Killed My Father is difficult to sit through not because of its subject matter, but because it is so unexpectedly unimaginative and flat.    

Grade: C



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