One of the first films to announce Netflix’s arrival on the original movie production scene was 2015’s Beasts of No Nation. A child’s-eye view of a brutal civil war, it inspired plaudits and festival and awards glory, and now, in 2017, Netflix seem to have a companion piece for Beasts in the form of First They Killed My Father. Angelina Jolie’s latest directorial effort, adapted by Loung Ung (played by Sareum Srey Moch) from her own memoir of her experiences as a child under the horrendous yoke of the Khmer Rouge, unfortunately comes up short in comparisons to Cary Fukunaga’s film. It’s well-intentioned and occasionally gripping, but ultimately lacks the power this story requires.
We start with a five year old Loung in 1975, living happily in Phnom Penh with her mother (Sveng Socheata), father (Phoeung Kompheak), and various siblings. This idyll is shattered by the Khmer Rouge’s takeover of Cambodia, and before they know it, Loung’s family is toiling away in the countryside, living on meagre scraps as they grow food for the army. This is a devastatingly tragic period of history, and that inherent impact means that Jolie’s film has some fantastic moments, like an unbearably tense questioning at a checkpoint to determine if Loung’s dad is a member of the soon-to-be-slaughtered middle class.
But this breathless unease cannot be sustained, and for too much of First They Killed My Father, Loung and the audience are just going through the motions. Bar a rather tonally confused, but undeniably effective, battle towards the end, this is an oddly sanitised take on the period, in far too good taste to leave much of a lasting impression. Jolie’s direction is sometimes great, with particularly brilliant aerial shots, but generally workmanlike and occasionally downright bad. Dream sequences are heavy-handed, constant flashbacks show a mistrust of audience intelligence, and the opening five minutes are pure cliché, a series of archive news footage set to ‘Sympathy for the Devil’.
One can’t help but wonder if a Cambodian director (the entire film is in the Khmer language) would have brought some more fire to this story, though Jolie’s name being attached to it undoubtedly brings this important and under-discussed subject matter into a more mainstream light. She also does a very fine job with her mainly very young cast. Srey Moch is tragically compelling as the lead, shellshocked stoicism occasionally giving way to the kind of raw emotional outburst that reminds you just how young Loung is to be experiencing these horrors.
And there are true horrors here, even if their presentation is underpowered. The kids are always hungry, the adults always terrified, and the incomprehensible evil of landmine usage retains a capacity to really shock. The father of the title might be Loung’s biological dad, or it may well be Cambodia itself, a nation butchered by Pol Pot’s regime and that wouldn’t recover for years after Vietnamese troops invaded and deposed the Khmer Rouge. Jolie and Netflix are to be commended for transferring this tale to the screen absent any sort of white saviour figure – it’s just a shame that it lacks the fury you feel is necessary.