Monday, December 11, 2017

REVIEW: First They Killed My Father

Taken at face value, Angelina Jolie's "First They Killed My Father" is one of the most misleading film titles of the year. The eponymous father does not meet his demise until more than an hour into the film. But therein lies the film's biggest strength. While similarly-themed films focus on the violence of civil war, this historical drama (based on a non-fiction book by the same name) captures the arduous experience of a revolution to gut-wrenching effect.

"First They Killed My Father" depicts a first-hand account of Loung Ung, a survivor of the vicious Khmer Rouge regime that took control of Cambodia in 1975. Being only 7 years old at the time, hers is a story of innocence lost, as she suffered through a myriad traumas. Her journey begins when US forces evacuated the country after a period of unjustifiable aggression towards Cambodia during the Vietnam War. Leaving behind a fragile country, the communist rebels called Khmer Rouge seized the moment, claiming to act in the best interest of the nation. But as the regime forces the citizens to flee their homes, their real intentions become apparent. Before long, they are stripped of their rights and forced to work for the military under strenuous conditions, as another war between Cambodia and Vietnam seems imminent.

Told from perspective of Loung Ung (in addition to stunning overhead shots from cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle), the film rests largely on Sreymoch Sareum's tiny shoulders. But whereas many child performers rely on a certain level of precociousness, this subdued performance is impact for doing the exact opposite. She is quiet for much of the narrative, like a journalist bearing witness to the atrocities happening all around her. Her watchful, unblinking eye is the camera recording this history.

Indeed, the screenplay is notably methodical in its approach, almost to the point of being monotonous. But this is certainly by design, showing the gradual process of dehumanization that occurred. The audience feels initial promise of salvation through repetitive propaganda, the desperation of hunger and the gradual stripping away of family and identity, all leaving a lasting impact. In that regard, the film becomes a powerful anti-communist statement.

Ultimately, "First They Killed My Father" succeeds largely on its humanism. Though it eventually illustrates the devastating effects of war, it is more memorable as a lament for the beauty that was lost. As Loung daydreams throughout her living nightmare, Jolie's optimism and love for these people and their culture is evident. As mentioned earlier, the bleak "First They Killed My Father" is misleading. A more appropriate title would be the one given to one of Jolie's previous films - Undefeated.

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