There’s a certain feeling that creeps in and continues to escalate while watching “First They Killed My Father.” It’s not quite anxiety, not quite grief, but a tight, stomach-churning sensation that never releases as you watch the events of the film unfold.
Based on the 2000 memoir of the same name by human rights activist Loung Ung, the Khmer-language “First They Killed My Father” is a portrait of the genocide of Cambodian minorities by the communist Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979 told entirely through the perspective of a five-year-old Loung Ung, who lived through the terrifying experience.
The narrative adaptation of the memoir has been a passion project for director Angelina Jolie — a longtime United Nations goodwill ambassador to Cambodia — since she discovered Loung Ung’s work in 2001. Her passion for the history and source material powerfully translates to the screen — with “First They Killed My Father,” Jolie crafts a shocking and intimate display of the acts of horror committed by the Khmer Rouge, resulting in a film that is at once mature, poignant and in many moments, utterly agonizing.
“First They Killed My Father” begins with a montage establishing its time period, with clips of Richard Nixon’s public declarations of American neutrality intertwined with the television news clips of Cambodian violence during the Vietnam War. Set to a distinctly out-of-place “Sympathy for the Devil,” this critique of U.S. noninterference is ultimately the extent of any historical context the film provides, as the rest of it is purely narrative.
We are introduced to young Loung Ung and her siblings dancing and playing in their neighborhood, only to be interrupted by the arrival of Khmer Rouge soldiers. As the soldiers force several families — including Loung Ung’s — out of their neighborhood, Loung Ung ponders the changes that are soon to transpire. The rest of the film tackles Loung Ung’s journey to escape from the Khmer regime, as well as the tragedies that result from her forced involvement with it.
“First They Killed My Father” is a remarkable achievement in cinematic storytelling, transforming Ung’s memoir into a thoroughly compelling, visceral experience. Scenes of the family’s migration, military encounters and forced labor are woven through dream sequences, where Loung Ung envisions characters from folklore coming to life along with soldiers and imagines what her life could have looked like, had she not been displaced. There’s a sharp distinction between the darkness of reality and the vivid rosiness of Loung Ung’s dreams. For much of the film, this represents her unwavering childlike vision, which is continuously tested and downtrodden through the trauma she endures.
For a film that is so reliant on creative storytelling, there is surprisingly little dialogue in the film. Instead, the narrative is conveyed dramatically through a dynamic soundscape, which starts off quietly and shifts into unbearable intensity, to match the violence on-screen.
But underneath the visual and audial triumphs of the film lies its central performance — that of 9-year-old first-time actress, Sareum Srey Moch as Loung Ung. Sareum Srey Moch — whose casting was the subject of wide controversy due to an audition process that critics have denounced as psychologically manipulative — is stunning, capturing Loung Ung’s transition from a state of innocence to a gradual awareness of the horrors surrounding her. Sareum Srey Moch portrays Loung Ung with a constant silent wonder, and her eyes alone convey more emotion than words could ever capture. It’s as if we can feel Loung Ung’s psychological transformation in the film’s most terrifying scenes — she is frozen in her steps, staring as violence consumes her home and the people around her. Here, especially, Sareum Srey Moch’s performance is nothing short of devastating.
“First They Killed My Father” is difficult to watch, and because of the complexity of its storytelling, difficult to interpret. But it is an unforgettable retelling of history through a personal lens. Not only is it Jolie’s strongest directorial work to date, it’s also a beautifully crafted reminder that the impacts of war and violence are never erased, but instead carry on in the form of stories — as painful, brutal and disturbing as they may be.