19 September 2017 | jadepietro
The Killing Fields Revisited
(RATING: ☆☆☆☆ out of 5)
THIS FILM IS RECOMMENDED.
IN BRIEF: An impressive film that authentically addresses the subject of war and, despite some missteps, builds to a powerful conclusion.
SYNOPSIS: The true story of a young Cambodian child forced to survive during the Khmer Rouge uprising.
JIM'S REVIEW: Opening this weekend, and streaming on Netflix, is Angelina Jolie's powerful docudrama, First They Killed My Father (subtitled A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers), a film that shows war through the eyes of a five year old child. One can readily admire the fortitude and devotion that this actress / director applies to her film. It is a sad and harrowing tale that occurs too often in this violent world of ours. With little dialog, the film tells the compelling tale of Loung Ung (Sareum Srey Moch, making an impressive debut) as she overcomes oppression in order to survive. Using all Cambodian actors speaking their native language, Ms. Jolie wrote the screenplay, along with the author, and she relies on strong visuals to reveal the escalating tensions that once destroyed a small nation.
The basic story is involving and realistically viewed, but the movie unfolds at a sluggish pace, especially in the first half hour with too many scenes focusing on the hardships occurring before the actual titled event even happens off-screen. We watch our heroine forced to become a prisoner in an internment camp, along with her family, before becoming a child soldier. Yet the historical aspects of the story are rarely addressed for any moviegoers who may not know the backstory of the rise of the Khmer Rouge regime and the genocide and enslavement that followed in mid-70's Cambodia. (Approximately two million Cambodians were killed due to warfare, starvation, and forced labor.) We see the various happenings that endanger this child and her family but we are also trying to sort out and unravel these sudden and abrupt changes to their everyday existence, mainly through the photo-journalistic approach to the narrative rather than understand the words spoken.
Loung Ung's autobiographical memoir about her family becoming casualties of war is told honestly, if a bit one-sided, with the director's sometimes heavy-handed treatment of the Vietnam War and her humanitarian leanings interfering with the film's momentum. There are flashbacks and dream fantasies that simply get in the way of the basic compelling story. Judicious editing would have given the film even more impact.
Ms. Jolie's direction starts off shaky and uneven. Her film is wildly accurate and hyper-realistic at times and yet languid and tedious in its details in other moments. Using her "Sympathy to the Devil" opening montage with archival newsreel footage and scenes of American involvement in the War Without a Name is a class in Cliché Filmmaking 101. She introduces Ms. Ung's family with their wealthy privileged lifestyle due to her father governmental job and their happy home before slowly beginning to contrast the "then and now" aspects of the family's ordeal. Soon they and thousand of other sympathizers are exiled and put into camps and later being separated as a family unit.
Yet if one doesn't lose interest and continues on this journey, the film builds to an emotional conclusion. It is in the film's second half where Ms. Jolie delivers with many striking images (a tearful child clutching onto her long lost stuffed animal, a dead body washed ashore and seen by gaping children, child laborers being victimized and abused), All of these images resonate. Her direction is most effective in other scenes of violence and brutality, as in her climactic battle sequence involving land mines that is intensely filmed and riveting. (Special mention to Anthony Dod Mantle for his stunning cinematography.)
First They Killed My Father is ultimately an impassioned plea for unity, understanding, and empathy that tries and eventually succeeds as it asks us to remember the past. Ms. Jolie's reverent film serves as a lasting testament to the human spirit.