For a brief moment at the beginning of “First They Killed My Father,” we glimpse a white reporter taking snapshots of the Khmer Rouge as they roll into Phnom Penh in April 1975, but for the rest of the movie, not a single Caucasian appears on screen in this appropriately Cambodian story. That alone represents a significant innovation in Angelina Jolie’s sprawling made-for-Netflix (but, if we’re really being honest, made-for-the-big-screen) adaptation of Loung Ung’s survivor’s memoir, considering that Western films like “The Killing Fields” have almost always privileged the white man’s POV on this and other atrocities.
Still, like last year’s “Beasts of No Nation” (the film this most closely resembles), a lack of stars and surfeit of suffering will inevitably limit the reach of this essential story, though the involvement of Oscar-nominated expat Rithy Panh (“The Missing Picture”) lends it a heft that could make this difficult Cambodian production a factor come awards season.
There’s a simple, practical reason that other movies take the outsider-looking-in approach, and it’s not one that’s so easily reduced to charges of America’s white-savior complex as some critics seem to think: For those who don’t already know the radically different foreign culture in which such exotic stories are set, it’s enormously helpful to experience them through the eyes of someone who is also trying to make sense of such potentially confusing circumstances.
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In that respect, Jolie’s film offers a valid alternative solution, by assuming the POV of five-year-old Loung, whose childlike inability to process the events unfolding around her theoretically mirrors our own, providing a natural point of identification for this overwhelming and often-ghastly depiction of the Khmer Rouge’s torture and murder of their fellow Cambodians in the wake of brutal civil war. No mention is made of the civil war here, whereas Jolie directly implicates the United States’ secret bombing of Cambodia (which borders Vietnam to the west) under Nixon.
What’s clear from the archival montage Jolie includes at the outset is that Nixon effectively managed to disinterest Americans in a country that suffered enormously during the Vietnam War, and to a large extent, that interest has never returned — which, of course, is what Jolie hopes to correct by reenacting this painful chapter in the history of the country where her adopted son Maddox (an executive producer on the film) was born, leveraging her personal reputation and devoting her own already-impressive directorial skills to that end.
The trouble is, Jolie clearly has a far bigger heart than most — witness her brood of children and quiver of causes — and she already cares about the Cambodian genocide, whereas the average viewer needs a bit more hand-holding to be drawn in to such a difficult story. After all, there’s no worse feeling than realizing that one is bored midway through such a weighty tour of miserablism, though the risk is real when we lack for context.
Dramatically speaking, apart from the fact that no child should experience what Loung had to witness, she’s not an especially compelling character — although Jolie’s interest in her is almost parental, and unconditional, creating a dynamic of presupposed empathy different from the vast majority of male-directed movies. Perhaps there was more dialogue to guide audiences at some point, although there’s not enough left to extrapolate a personality for Loung or her siblings. Foreign-language films (this one is performed mostly in Khmer) with kid protagonists frequently benefit from the fact that audiences can’t judge the line readings, relying instead on the facial expressions of adorable urchins — but even these don’t communicate quite enough in this case.
The film is so understated with regard to Loung’s basic predicament that we don’t recognize her driving desire — simply, to be reunited with her siblings — until the movie is over. Otherwise, Loung’s chief concern is to survive, and apart from the fact that she lived to write a book about it, the odds don’t look good after the Khmer Rouge round up her family and begin to execute those with ties to the old government.
Misleading title aside, there’s quite a bit the Khmer Communist Party does to make the Ungs’ lives miserable before Loung’s father is finally dragged off and shot (his execution is depicted entirely in Loung’s imagination, and haunts her repeatedly throughout the rest of the film). Together with her two brothers, two sisters and parents, Loung rides out of Phnom Penh in the family pickup truck. This exodus, made under false pretenses (the threat of an American bombing that never comes), is stunning to witnesses, as the civilians walk in one direction carrying umbrellas while soldiers march in the other carrying rifles and rocket launchers.
In yet another example of 20th-century communism gone horribly wrong, Cambodia’s new rulers attempted to confiscate private property and collectivize the country, forcing the Ung family — including the kids — to work the fields where food is cultivated for the soldiers, surviving on thin gruel and whatever insects they can capture and eat. Under camp rules, should a starving child so much as a steal a green bean for herself, she might be ruthlessly punished. It’s a scary thought that Loung’s quality of life actually improves somewhat when she escapes and finds herself reassigned to another camp, where she is trained as a child soldier, which in turn leads to the film’s most horrifying scene, in which Loung finds herself standing in the middle of a minefield as her less fortunate peers vaporize around her.
Engagement and identification challenges aside, Ung’s story should resonate beyond its mere historical value, as many of the circumstances Jolie depicts seem to repeating now in other corners of the world — most notably Syria, where the Islamic State group is terrorizing residents in a similar fashion. Perhaps the trickiest contradiction to parse is the sheer splendor of the Cambodian landscape, breathtakingly captured by DP Anthony Dod Mantle (who mostly checks the Terrence Malick-like distractions of local flora and fauna). These glimpses recall such imprisoned-child sagas as “Empire of the Sun” and “Fateless,” whose first-person accounts attempt to reconcile the fact that even in such grim circumstances, the young protagonists managed to experience moments of joy and beauty. Audiences should be grateful for these fleeting reprieves, as Jolie’s oh-so-earnest treatment of Ung’s story might otherwise be too heavy to bear.