By John Liu
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
“First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers” debuted on Sept. 15 on Netflix. This is the first film that I’ve seen directed by Angelina Jolie. Her inspiration for this movie started 17 years ago while filming “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” in Cambodia.
Angelina came upon a book on the side of the road called First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, written by Loung Ung in 2000. Angelina got in touch with her, and they became good friends. Angelina confided to Loung her plans of adopting a child in Cambodia. In 2002, Angelina adopted Maddox Chivan. Jolie also became an honorary Cambodian citizen for her conservation efforts by setting up a wildlife reserve in that country.
In 2015, Loung collaborated with Angelina on the screenplay of the film, and even Maddox is credited in the movie as the executive producer. Five-hundred Cambodian craftspeople and technicians, and more than 3,500 Cambodian extras were used in the film.
From 1975 to 1979, the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), otherwise known as the Khmer Rouge, rose to power in Cambodia and forced 2 million people into the countryside to do agricultural work. First They Killed My Father touches only on the life of Loung from age 5 to 9, and not the Killing Fields. The movie starts with Loung playing and dancing with her father, mother, and six siblings.
We overhear that there is growing concern that America is leaving Cambodia, and the CPK will reach the city soon. The CPK arrive and orders everyone to evacuate.
After many days of walking on the road, Loung and her family arrive at work camps, where their family is forced into manual labor. They are fed meager rations and the dad is forced to sneak food for their family. One day, Loung’s father is taken away. Their mother decides the best chance of survival is to split the kids up and have them go their separate ways.
Loung finds another work camp and is chosen by a CPK captain to join a group of children for military training. They learn how to shoot AK47s, plant land mines, and utilize hand-to-hand combat. I have to wonder if Loung ever had to kill anyone herself.
How does a child comprehend war and politics happening all around her? The film depicts Loung observing silently at what goes on. Next there are flashbacks and distorted reality as Loung ponders the fate of her family members. Although we see bodies throughout the movie, the kills are never very graphic. Angelina ensured that the movie is fast-paced and wants us to see this movie through the eyes of a child. Although First They Killed My Father’s material is very dramatic, the cinematography is actually quite gorgeous. There are some great shots of the Cambodian countryside and quite a number of overhead shots. We get a sense of the enormity of the evacuation when hundreds of people are walking in a line surrounded by CPK soldiers.
Loung wrote in her memoir, “From 1975 to 1979 — through execution, starvation, disease, and forced labor—the Khmer Rouge systematically killed an estimated 2 million Cambodians, almost a fourth of the country’s population. This is a story of survival: my own and my family’s.”
First They Killed My Father has been chosen as Cambodia’s entry to the Best Foreign Language film category at the Oscars. Be sure to catch First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers on Netflix. If you don’t have a Netflix subscription, Landmark Crest Cinema Centre in Shoreline is the only theater playing this movie in the Seattle area.
John can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.