Hollywood@Home: First They Killed My Father

The family of Loung Ung struggles during the bloody reign of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

“First They Killed My Father” offers a powerful, personal story of how one Cambodian family was impacted by the bloody reign of the Khmer Rouge. When I say it’s a “personal” story, it means you should know your history of southeast Asia before seeing the film, Cambodia’s official entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 90th Academy Awards. The filmmakers don’t give you the wider picture, only “how” what happened in Cambodia changed a single family. It’s a powerful story, but limited in scope.

Director/screenwriter Angelina Jolie opens the film with an all-too-brief explanation of why Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, was in chaos. Rebel soldiers were descending on the city following a pullout of U.S. and allied troops in April of 1975. The story picks up with 5-year-old Loung Ung and her family being forced to leave the capital city for labor camps in the countryside. The film is told from the perspective of the child and is based on Ung’s memoir of the same name.

Ung has explained in media interviews that recalling the events of her early childhood is basically remembering how her parents felt about the deadly sacrifices being made and how she felt about being forced into hard labor and military training. At the age of seven, Ung was forced to become a child soldier and planted land mines meant to repel invaders from neighboring Vietnam. The film details the long struggle by Ung’s family and the murders of her mother, father and siblings. It’s not easy to watch at times.

Jolie continues to progress as a director and story-teller. It might be premature to think about her winning the coveted statuette. But, she definitely warrants the attention being paid.

As I stated before, mainstream American audiences will find themselves more or less struggling with the overall story, since moviegoers may not be familiar with the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge during its reign of terror (Nearly two-million Cambodians killed in just four years). My best advice is read about the conflict first, then stream the movie on Netflix or catch it at a local theater if it’s still playing. Grade: B

A view of Cambodia’s killing fields is brought to the screen in “First They Killed My Father.”