We begin with “Sympathy for the Devil.” Cascading stock footage of Nixon and Kissinger contextualizes grainy shots of Cambodian violence and American intervention via U.S. bullets and bombs, while Mick wails, “the blitzkrieg raged/and the bodies stank.” You’d be forgiven for thinking this sounds like second-hand Stone, more Western perspective on world crises with pulp joie de vivre? Not another ‘60s/’70s remembrance, you might say.
And we’ve heard your jabs. Wah-wah world history and tragedy. Netflix movies are hard to take in with home distractions. “St. Jolie,” director of Unbroken, By the Sea, and In The Land of Blood and Honey; works of the Cinema Du Serious. But viewer be warned, for Angelina Jolie almost fakes you out. Emotionally rich stuff does lie within.
Get past that muddy prologue and you’ll witness what may be one of Netflix’s finest films to date. Give its director a chance, because First They Killed My Father is the first work of Jolie’s as a director that legitimately connects. This is the monstrous legend of the Angkar, the Khmer Rouge, and Cambodia under Pol Pot, artfully told through the eyes of a child. It securely defines itself as a hypnotically focused and intimate vision, one of horror and lost innocence. In broad strokes it plays as a historical thriller, unflinching but not obscene. And in the halls of historical melodrama, this one deserves a studied view for its visually sound and emotionally daring presentation.
The pre-history: Loung Ung is the film’s juvenile lead, a five-year-old Cambodian refugee and survivor, played here by newcomer Sareum Srey Moch. Ung is a real-life figure, and was 30 when she published her memoir First They Killed My Father in 2000; the book offers an interior look at what motivates survival, as well as how we comprehend evil. A party of followers under Pot, the Khmer Rouge chased and butchered millions of Cambodians through guerilla warfare. If you were lucky (in the loosest possible sense), you were a child, forced into indoctrination and not immediately slaughtered. Yet the dread remained. Will you or your family survive? Will you be abused and tortured at a death camp? Ung made it out, but not without trauma.
After that rocky, clichéd intro, Jolie delves deep into the heart of the matter through Ung’s experiences. The film immediately depicts the Khmer Rouge marching into Ung’s home of Phnom Penh in the spring of 1975, as her family is run out. Moch’s Ung is a curious child defined by universal qualities: love, warmth, and a knack for soaking in the textures of life in absolutes. Ung may not understand the politics of her sudden plight, or why people are dying around her, but she knows fear. She knows death. She knows that she wants to live, even if everything else is ridiculously hard to process.
Here’s a film less fascinated with the mechanics of Pot’s handiwork, and more in capturing the feelings of Ung’s bewilderment. Where films like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, or Lone Survivor, or even portions of Son of Saul get hung up in the pain of war, explicit violence, and big emotional moments, Jolie’s interests lie elsewhere. She wants to respect and convey Ung’s tale in an appropriate fashion, and as a historical polemical work, First They Killed My Father is refreshingly humane even when its presentation turns harsh. And this creative decision works. Prologues and codas will give you what you need, contextually. The devil is in the details of Ung’s experience. And while the messages feel simple – no one should experience this, power corrupts absolutely, and so on – Jolie has developed an effective work of empathy.
Evacuations. Disparate camps on the side of the road. An overwhelming sense of disorientation. Ung is thrust into her new life in a constant endurance test, and it yields one intense moment after another. A five-year old should not have to push dead bodies, trapped on the banks, downriver. Or witness death itself. She should not be armed with rifles and forced to undergo combat training. She shouldn’t be planting mines in the forest.
Contemplate the sad episode of the film’s title, and how it’s presented. A cheaper effort would amp up the orchestral strings, or focus on the teary eyes of a child to mine sadness from the viewer. But Jolie wants to capture this moment for all of its complicated emotions. We witness Ung see Angkar thugs ask her father (Phoeung Kompheak) for “help.” It seems innocent enough, but something’s wrong. Her father’s telling her he loves her in terms that feel like a goodbye. Ung very slowly picks up on this. All we see is the assured smile of her father as he’s stepping aside. Only moments later, when he’s gone, does Ung cry out for her father. Devastating, and effectively delivered. Jolie makes many moments like this one sing, however sadly.
The tricks of Jolie’s trade include steadied POV camerawork, and plotting assembled in pieces through the eyes and ears of her young lead character. Ung looks out to the world from a shimmering, optimistic balcony. Ung gazes at and makes eye contact with siblings and parents, all of it ever so slightly awkwardly framed at low angles. Each shot is crisply captured through Anthony Dod Mantle’s (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours) camera. This photographic style develops a trust, allowing the viewer to feel privileged to their knowledge of Ung’s world. It makes the warmer moments radiate, and the alarming aspects of war galvanize. Ung looking at the gory remains of bodies made raw by her planted mines. Ung’s disbelief presuming her family died as she looks on at a burning village in the night. The images are par excellence, and Jolie uses them to noticeable dramatic effect.
Admittedly, the film is structured as an escalating series of horrors for Ung as we watch agog. Yet it’s not exploitative – it serves as an intense form of meditation through felt helplessness. And unlike past directorial outings from Jolie, the scenes don’t drag, but instead accumulate into something more picturesque, and even painterly. The photography is key, and again, her best tool. She may have found a worthy, expressive partner in Mantle. Her shots are neither callow, nor needlessly showy. Ung’s astonishment and confusion at seeing the dead functions as an expressive testimonial.
To dust off the old adage, this film’s images and story serve as a reminder. Do not forget. Do empathize and try to understand in the simplest terms. It’s a high feat of respect, as Jolie strives to captures the sensations of another’s pain. Out of an act of war, Jolie has created a film of real compassion.