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FILM REVIEW: First They Killed My Father3 min read

17 December 2018 3 min read


FILM REVIEW: First They Killed My Father3 min read

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Loung Ung is 5 years old when the Khmer Rouge assumes power over Cambodia in 1975. They soon begin a four-year reign of terror and genocide in which nearly 2 million Cambodians die. Forced from her family’s home in Phnom Penh, Ung is trained as a child soldier while her six siblings are sent to labor camps.

Director: Angelina Jolie
Cast: Sreymoch Sareum, Kompheak Phoeung, Socheta Sveng
Year: 2017
Language: Khmer
Runtime: 136min
Rating: R21 on Netflix

Review by Jean Wong

First They Killed My Father (2017) is a film adapted from the memoir of the same name by Loung Ung. With a vivid portrayal of war, the film tackles the horrible realities of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. Ung was just 5 when Pol Pot, the leader of the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), marched into Cambodia. While it may stem from a desire to stick as closely as possible to the memoir, choosing to film it from a child’s perspective makes the movie ever more poignant and highlights the effects of war on children. Since Ung co-wrote the screenplay with Angelina Jolie, the scenes in the film accurately reflect her experience of the regime. While some have argued that the film does not fully represent the true events of the Khmer Rouge regime, diving into one individual’s experience of the war makes the whole affair with the screen more intimate. This works well for the movie as it places viewers right in the middle of the war, as if they were living it through Ung’s eyes.

Much of our understanding of what is happening in the film comes across to us from Ung’s observations, but this begets the question — how much does the protagonist, Ung, understand? Knowing what is happening in the film as a viewer but not knowing whether Ung comprehends the events unfolding around her makes the movie a disconcerting one to watch. First They Killed My Father captures Ung’s loss of innocence strikingly in the film as we watch her grow through the harsh circumstances she’s in. One scene in which Ung asks to return to Phnom Penh after CPK had seized Cambodia’s capital accentuates her naivety and innocence as a child. However, her innocence fades with each passing day. Ung eventually learns that when a soldier takes someone away, even under the pretense of labour, that person is never coming back.

Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, who won an Oscar for his work on Slumdog Millionaire (2008), does a commendable job. Having the movie shot just four feet off the ground really captures the essence of a child’s point-of-view. This makes the film resonate much more strongly with the audience as we experience the war through her eyes.

The CPK, also known by many as the Khmer Rouge, killed more than a million people, roughly a quarter of Cambodia’s population. In pursuit of a ‘purist’ country, the CPK targeted not only political opposition, but anyone with a foreign education as well as many Cambodian minorities. Almost two million lives were lost during the Khmer Rouge regime. ‘Khmer’ therefore became a blanket term used for the Cambodians that remained. Watching First They Killed My Father made me feel extremely fortunate that I live in a politically peaceful city. As a Southeast Asian denizen, I feel obliged to be aware of its history and political happenings. The fact that a genocide happened right next door is something most of us don’t think about, but it is a travesty not to be forgotten. For anyone who has no idea what the Khmer Rouge is and wishes to learn, First They Killed My Father is a great film to educate in an emotionally powerful manner.

Contemplative empath who sees wonder in the curious world. Has a habit of hiding behind books and occasionally dabbles in games, Netflix and YouTube. Is permanently attached to bubble tea.
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