Jolie imbues Cambodia drama with skill, intelligence
By now, there should be no debating that Angelina Jolie is a talented director, capable of handling the most challenging subject matter with assurance and sensitivity. Those who continue to denigrate her skills because she's also a movie star and tabloid fixture are running out of ammunition.
There also should be no debating the value of a major film being made about the Cambodian genocide under the Khmer Rouge — a film shot in Cambodia, and in the Khmer language, to boot. Or that without Jolie's commitment and clout, "First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers" would never have been made.
This story of a young girl's experiences under the murderous regime, based on the memoir by Loung Ung, is close to Jolie for many reasons: She's had a strong connection to the country since she filmed a movie there in 2000. She adopted her eldest son there (Maddox is listed as an executive producer), started a foundation there, even received citizenship there, and is a friend of the author. All this means that she is extremely familiar with Cambodia and its story, and this is both the movie's great strength and its occasional weakness.
Why weakness? Because the film presupposes a knowledge of the history that many in a broad mainstream audience — particularly young people — likely lack. And that distance from the story blunts its power somewhat. Simply put, a little more guidance at the right places — we don't want to call it hand-holding — might have been in order.
There's another storytelling challenge here. Jolie, who co-wrote the screenplay with Ung, is aiming to tell the story through the eyes of a child, aged 5 to 9. As Jolie herself has said, "a child experiences more than she talks." It's true that there's not a lot of dialogue here, and that for the movie's two-plus hours, we're learning — and growing — along with Loung. There may be moments where we're impatient for answers, but the film asks that we wait, and learn them when and if Loung does.