First They Killed My Father

Distributed By: Netflix

Reviewed by Melissa Minners


                A few years ago, I read a memoir by Loung Ung called First They Killed My Father, looking back on her experiences in the Killing Fields of Cambodia when she was just a child.  The book was riveting and I was taken in by the emotional experience of being uprooted from her home, completely ignorant to the politics of what was going on or just how much danger she was really in and losing the people she loved most in the world during her most formidable years.  When I learned that Angelina Jolie would be directing a film based on Loung Ungís memoir, I couldnít wait to see it.

                The movie begins with an explanation of the times Ė the United States began bombing runs in Cambodia during the Vietnam War, presumably to flush out Vietcong hiding in the neutral country.  Under constant bombardments, the people of the countryside settlements began to look to the Khmer Rouge for protection.  After the United States government realized they would never win the Vietnam War and pulled out of the country, the Khmer Rouge took over. 

As a Lon Nol officer, Loungís father (Phoeung Kompheak) knew that the family could be in trouble.  He pretends to be a laborer and conceals his previous employment with the government to protect their family.  They leave behind the luxuries of their apartment and automobile and the family of seven pile with the most essential of belongings into their pick-up truck.  But it is not their truck for longÖin fact none of their possessions truly belong to them, as they are soon to be instructed by the soldiers of the Khmer Rouge.  The Ung family seeks refuge with Loungís uncle for a short time but must leave once it becomes apparent that they could put Uncleís family in danger by staying.

The Ung family arrives at a work camp and are immediately put to work tilling fields and growing crops for the Khmer Rouge military effort.  It isnít long before Loungís oldest brothers (Khoun Sothea and Heng Dara) and oldest sister (Oun Srey Neang) are taken to another camp.  Soon after, her oldest sister dies from illness.  Her mother (Sveng Socheata) is devastated and becoming more despondent each day.  Then, Loungís father is taken from them, presumably to work in another area, but both he and his wife suspect that they have discovered who he really is.  When Loungís brother Kim (Mun Kimhak) is attacked by a soldier while trying to get their youngest sister Geak (Sarun Nika) food, their mother decides it is no longer safe for them at this camp.

She sends Loung (Sreymoch Sareum), Kim and Chaou (Run Malyna) away from the camp, instructing them to go in different directions and pretend to be orphans so another camp can take them in.  It isnít long before Loung is chosen to become a child soldier, learning to fight, set land mines, trip wires and use an AK-47.  A return to her motherís camp reveals that her mother and youngest sister had been taken by soldiers.  Upon returning, her own camp is attacked by the Vietnamese Army.  She reunites with Kim and Chaou, but another attack leaves her separated and inside the mine field she helped to create.  Somehow, she survives and is reunited with Kim and Chaou again.  Soon after, her oldest brothers Khouy and Meng find them and the remainder of their family is whole again.

The screenplay of First They Killed My Father was co-written by Angelina Jolie and Loung Ung, pretty much insuring that the movie would stay close to the book.  A former ambassador for the United States to countries like Laos, Cambodia and Darfur, Jolie wanted to make a film that was as much about the atrocities of war seen through the eyes of a child, but also to tell the story of the country.  To that end, she gathered hundreds of survivors and their children, using only Cambodian actors who spoke Khmer and filming it all in Cambodia.  This added a realism to the film that could not be found with well-known actors on a built movie set.

First They Killed My Father is told through the eyes of Loung as a child, thus, the views are childlike, Loung looking around in wonderment as she is carted off to the country.  She doesnít understand what is going on and her eyes take all this newness in, even the horrors of dead bodies in the river, callous looks from soldiers and more.  Sometimes these views are blurred as things move too fast for the child Loung to comprehend.  The way her fatherís face is often framed in her eyes lets the viewer know just how enamored she is with him.  Her father is her light and the only comfort in this new world.  What may have theoretically happened to her father and mother are seen through Loungís nightmares.  Horrors witnessed are sometimes shown in slow speed with muted sound for full effect.

           Sreymoch Sareum is amazing as Loung Ung.  There isnít much dialogue in the film and we must discover the anguish of the situation through Loungís expressions.  This young girl finds a way to perfectly present the curiosity, wonder and eventual terror, despair and anger Loung feels as her situation progresses.  We can read the great feelings of loss in her face and it tears at our heartstrings.   Kompheak Phoeung is also an expert at the art of expression Ė we see the love for his family in his face, the fear for them in his eyes, the surrender to his fate in the slump of his shoulders and the bowing of his head.  Great performances by Socheta Sveng as well as she sees her family torn apart and feels helpless to do anything to stop it.

As I said before, there is little dialogue in the film.  The emotional horrors of the Killing Fields are presented through body and facial expressions, but also through music.  Marco Beltrami did an excellent job with the score he created for the film, capturing the terror and uncertainty of every moment in the film and the deep sadness felt by Loung for the loss of her family at such an early age.

First They Killed My Father is truly a gut-wrenching experience.  What better way to tell the horrors of the Killing Fields than through the eyes of a child.  A young child canít understand the politics behind the hateful eyes cast upon them by the Khmer Rouge.  It canít understand the politics behind camp internment or starvation.  It canít understand the reasons behind the brutal beatings, the separation from family, the loss of family members due to death, sickness or starvation.  All of these things are made more horrific when viewing them through the eyes of an innocent child.  I loved that the movie was very faithful to the book.  First They Killed My Father was an amazing read and this movie adaptation of the film is a very dramatic, heart-rending look into a horrific moment of history that should not be missed.


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