Jolie im­bues Cam­bo­dia drama with skill, in­tel­li­gence

El Dorado News-Times - - Living -

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.

We be­gin with a brief pref­ace, a mon­tage set to the Rolling Stones' per­haps overused "Sym­pa­thy for the Devil," re­fer­ring to the un­of­fi­cial U.S. bomb­ing of Cam­bo­dia and Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon's 1971 re­mark that "what we are do­ing is help­ing the Cam­bo­di­ans help them­selves." We then see a child's face re­flected in the TV screen. This is Loung (Srey­moch Sareum), and now her eyes will be ours.

The fam­ily is well off; Loung's fa­ther is in the mil­i­tary po­lice. But it is 1975, and ev­ery­thing is chang­ing. The Kh­mer Rouge has cap­tured Ph­nom Penh, be­gin­ning a four-year regime un­der which an es­ti­mated 1.7 mil­lion Cam­bo­di­ans will die from star­va­tion, dis­ease or ex­e­cu­tion. The fam­ily is forced to leave the city. "Can we take our New Year's dresses?" Loung asks.

The fam­ily treks to the coun­try­side, try­ing des­per­ately to hide the fa­ther's as­so­ci­a­tion with the top­pled regime. (Loung's fa­ther and mother are played mov­ingly by Kom­pheak Phoe­ung and the beau­ti­ful Socheata Sveng.) Loung is quickly dis­abused of the no­tion that the fam­ily is only go­ing to leave home for a few days. They, and their com­pa­tri­ots, will now be in the ser­vice of the Kh­mer Rouge, and its Maoist plan to elim­i­nate the elite and trans­form the coun­try into an agrar­ian utopia.

They ar­rive at a ru­ral camp, where food is vir­tu­ally nonex­is­tent. They must build their own homes. It's not long be­fore the fam­ily will be split apart, and the ti­tle will come true -al­though this de­vel­op­ment, like much of the ter­ri­ble vi­o­lence that tran­spired, is shown only briefly in a dream se­quence. (An­other dream se­quence shows Loung faced with a ta­ble of lus­cious sweets, try­ing to eat it all.) We will fol­low Loung as she is grad­u­ally sep­a­rated from ev­ery­one and finds her­self train­ing to be a child sol­dier.

That train­ing will help Loung sur­vive one of the most dev­as­tat­ing mo­ments of the film, caught in the mid­dle of a mine­field. And sud­denly a lit­tle girl knows what all the oth­ers do not, which is that the ground un­der­neath can kill you.

As we know from the book, Loung was even­tu­ally re­united with some of her sib­lings, and the se­quence at the end, with the adult fam­ily at a me­mo­rial, is very mov­ing. This is a story that has not been told enough. Jolie's ef­fort -- mi­nor flaws and all -- will en­sure that many more peo­ple un­der­stand it.

"First They Killed My Fa­ther," a Net­flix re­lease, is un­rated by the Mo­tion Pic­ture As­so­ci­a­tion of Amer­ica. Run­ning time: 136 min­utes. Three stars out of four.

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