Struggling against its own run time, ‘First They Killed My Father,’ the story of a child surviving the Pol Pot regime, proves that film production done right will not sustain a movie on its own.
They hit all the marks. Director Angelina Jolie co-wrote the screenplay with Loung Ung, who authored the acclaimed memoir from which the movie was adapted. Shot on location—the largest-scale motion picture ever made in Cambodia—the Khmer language film employed over 500 local technicians and artisans, and features an entirely Cambodian cast. They even installed five school tents on set for the children.
But for all of the thought and care that went into the making of ‘First They Killed My Father,’ for the film’s many charms, poor pacing drags out its already bloated run time.
This is not to say that Ung’s story should be abridged, nor her voice silenced. But perhaps we don’t need quite so many transition scenes in a two-hour plus movie that feels much longer.
Intrigue, however, bookends ‘First They Killed My Father,’ and Jolie reveals herself quite capable at the helm. The film opens right before the Khmer Rouge forces five-year-old Ung (Sareum Srey Moch, who was discovered in a local school), along with everyone else, out of Phnom Penh. An effective, reoccurring use of POV shots places us in Ung’s head, and we see the city fall through the eyes of a child.
The army then marches the Ung family into the countryside, a flight laden with tension mostly stemming from the film’s title; we expect Ung’s father (Phoeung Kompheak), hiding his identity as an opposition fighter, to be discovered at any second. Along the road, black-shirted soldiers strip the family of their possessions—a watch, a car, a New Year’s dress—until we arrive in the first labor camp.
Here the film starts to drag despite some positive elements—namely the sweeping crane shots of beautiful Cambodian countryside. It’s hard to say specifically what needs to go. Evidently it was hard for the editor as well. The drawn out wanderings of Ung, while not without pockets of tension and emotion and development, needed to be more concise.
But towards the end of the film, Jolie reinstates her abilities behind the camera in a sequence that finds Ung caught in a firefight between Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese soldiers, and the film regains its momentum.
If only some of the film’s middle segments found their way to the chopping block, Ung’s tale of indomitable spirit and familial love in the face of genocide could have earned the recognition it deserves.
Netflix will stream ‘First They Killed My Father’ on September 15th
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