The Cambodian genocide of the late 1970s is seen through the eyes of a young girl in this quietly powerful epic directed by Angelina Jolie. It opens at the Crest in Seattle and shows on Netflix starting Sept. 15. Rating: 4 stars out of 4.
The central, defining image in “First They Killed My Father” are the eyes of a child.
The child is Loung Ung (Sareum Srey Moch), a young Cambodian girl. Her eyes reflect confusion, fear and, yes, a sense of wonder as they look upon a world turned upside down. They’re eyes reflecting above all the child’s struggle to comprehend the incomprehensible.
The incomprehensible here is the Cambodian genocide of the late 1970s, when it’s estimated close to 2 million people — a quarter of the country’s population — was exterminated by the communist Khmer Rouge regime of Pol Pot.
Movie Review ★★★★
‘First They Killed My Father,’ with Sareum Srey Moch, Phoeung Kompheak, Sveng Socheata. Directed by Angelina Jolie, from a screenplay by Jolie and Loung Ung. 136 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences (contains adult themes, some disturbing images). In Khmer, with English subtitles. Crest Cinema and on Netflix.
Loung and her family were caught up in that holocaust. She survived, and grew up to write the memoir that is the source material for this movie, with which it shares its title.
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Loung became a humanitarian activist and co-wrote the screenplay with the picture’s director, Angelina Jolie, a prominent humanitarian in her own right. Loung’s story dovetails closely with Jolie’s concerns, and it’s inspired her to create a movie of epic scale and impressive quiet power.
Shot on location in Cambodia in the Khmer language, it’s a family story with the travails of Loung and her parents and brothers and sisters serving as a microcosm of their nation’s anguish.
The act from which the title is derived doesn’t occur until almost halfway through the movie. Until then, Jolie presents a detailed portrait of a loving, protective father (Phoeung Kompheak) and his gentle-spirited wife (Sveng Socheata) trying as best they can to keep the family together and help their kids cope with the relentless, step-by-step process of dehumanization they’re subjected to by the Khmer Rouge. City residents, they’re forced from their home, stripped of their possessions, marched to the countryside, forced to work in the fields, confined to a concentration camp and starved. Ultimately they’re separated and the parents are done away with.
Jolie draws restrained, naturalistic performances from her all-Cambodian cast, particularly young Sareum Srey Moch. There’s a stillness and a stoicism in her portrayal that makes her an unforgettable figure in this unforgettable movie.