First They Killed My Father premieres on Netflix on September 15.
It would have been easy for Angelina Jolie’s adaptation of Cambodian genocide survivor Loung Ung’s 2000 memoir to go ruthlessly and repeatedly for the emotional jugular. First They Killed My Father is, after all, the story of a young girl hurled into one of the 20th century’s most unthinkable nightmares. But Loung’s book was itself a work of tight, no-nonsense prose; the facts it presented were devastating enough. And the film is similarly tough and unyielding; it unspools with admirable discipline and verve. This is Jolie’s most accomplished work yet.
Loung was just 5 years old when the Khmer Rouge entered the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh in 1975. The guerrilla army had spent the previous decade or so growing and radicalizing in the country’s mountains and jungles, feeding off the chaos of the Vietnam War next door. Even so, their victory was initially greeted with relief; many Cambodians believed this would mark the end to years of civil war. Within hours, however, the Khmer Rouge forced the residents of Phnom Penh out. The new regime was determined to eradicate the country’s past and any vestiges of modernity, in order to build an entirely agrarian, classless society where the only family anyone would know was the state. If you spoke a foreign language (colonialist!), you could be executed. If you wore a pair of glasses (intellectual!), you could be executed. If you owned nice clothes (bourgeois!), you could be executed. Over the next four years, 2 million Cambodians perished — nearly a quarter of the country.
Jolie doesn’t spend much time on Loung’s life before the Khmer Rouge…
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