Global Cinema 29: Cambodia – First They Killed My Father (2017)

My trek around the globe now takes me to Cambodia (also known as Kampuchea), where a lot of the films which have made it to Western audiences focus on the turbulent era under Pol Pot in the 1970s. Prestige Hollywood dramas of the 1980s like The Killing Fields still define the Western understanding of the country, deepened somewhat by the films of newer auteurs like Rithy Panh. Angelina Jolie follows in this tradition with her 2017 Netflix feature film, though it certainly does showcase the country beautifully, despite the harrowing content.


Cambodian flagKingdom of Cambodia (កម្ពុជា Kămpŭchéa)
population 15,552,000 | capital Phnom Penh (2.3m) | largest cities Phnom Penh, Siem Reap (245k), Battambang (119k), Sisophon (99k), Poipet (99k) | area 181,035 km2 | religion Buddhism (97%) | official language Khmer (ភាសាខ្មែរ) | major ethnicity Khmer (97%) | currency Riel (៛) [KHR] | internet .kh

A country in the south of the Indochinese peninsula, whose name comes via French, though the Khmer name comes from Sanskrit for “country of Kamboja”, alluding to the country’s foundation myths. Evidence suggests settlement as far back as 6000 BCE, with Iron Age cultures by the 6th century BCE. The Khmer Empire grew from Indian influenced states of Funan and Chenla, established by the 9th century CE and the largest in SE Asia by the 12th century, with its capital at Angkor, the largest pre-industrial city in the world. It remained a force until the 15th century, but power in the region became divided between Siam (Thailand) and Vietnam. In the 19th century it became a protectorate of France, part of French Indochina (and briefly controlled by Japan during WW2), but the French failed to control the monarchy and it gained independence on 9 November 1953. Tension with Vietnam over control of the Mekong Delta led to Vietnam’s invasion and subsequent conflict and a coup hastened a civil war, in which the Cambodian communists (known as the Khmer Rouge) gained the upper edge, despite aggressive US bombing. Under Pol Pot, the KR modelled itself on Maoist China and led to the death of several million people, eventually toppled by a Vietnamese invasion, though formal peace didn’t come until 1991, and the monarchy was restored in 1993. There is now a constitutional monarchy, with a PM appointed by the king on the advice of an elected assembly.

Cinema didn’t begin until the 1950s, encouraged by King Sihanouk, with many films made and screened during the 1960s, until the rise of the Khmer Rouge when it virtually ceased (aside from a few propaganda films). The industry has only slowly recovered, with notable figures including the French-trained Rithy Panh, whose films focus on the KR era (and who produced the film below). Recent years have seen a rise in horror cinema, though overall the industry has stagnated and only 11 cinemas remained by 2011.


មុនដំបូងខ្មែរក្រហមសម្លាប់ប៉ារបស់ខ្ញុំ Moun dambaung Khmer Krahm samleab ba robsa khnhom (First They Killed My Father, 2017)

This is undoubtedly a very polished and well-made film. Angelina Jolie has made a number of films over the past decade or so, and has made a habit of telling less commercial stories, which I very much respect (though her masterpiece so far is By the Sea, a weird French riviera-set twisted love story starring her and Brad Pitt). This film about a young girl during the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia cleaves very closely to the girl’s point of view, including a lot of the camerawork being distinctly low angle and close to the ground. This has the benefit of avoiding the need to contextualise everything, because she herself has an imperfect understanding of the situation, but that’s also to the viewer’s detriment, because it’s unclear what exactly the issues are. Still, the young girl is a very fine actor, called on to walk through all this horrendous suffering, a witness to her country pulling itself apart — albeit somewhat prompted by the extensive covert US bombing during the Vietnam War. It manages to give a lush sense of Cambodia’s countryside at the same time as hinting at the horrors which its people endured. It may not quite reach the same heights as its producer Rithy Panh’s own films, but it’s a commendable effort all the same.

First They Killed My Father film posterCREDITS
Director Angelina Jolie; Writers Loung Ung អ៊ឹង លឿង and Jolie (based on Ung’s non-fiction book); Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle; Starring Sreymoch Sareum, Kompheak Phoeung, Socheta Sveng; Length 136 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Thursday 4 March 2021.

By the Sea (2015)

There’s something delightfully old-fashioned about this new film by Angelina Jolie (styling herself “Jolie Pitt” in the credits), set in the 1970s and to all purposes a throwback to that era — if not an earlier one indeed (hints of Michelangelo Antonioni perhaps, albeit without that director’s rigorously architectural framing). Needless to say, viewers familiar with the couple’s pairing in Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005) will probably be taken aback here, as this is unapologetically an ennui-laden erotic thriller, where any eroticism is deeply tied up with voyeurism, not to mention a traumatic event which remains only hinted at for much of the film. The Pitts play a childless couple of 14 years, Vanessa and Roland, who have travelled to a small French seaside town for the summer. Their neighbours in the comfortably-appointed hotel are a newly-married couple on their honeymoon, Léa and François (Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud). Thus begins a drama of erotic transference in which demons are unearthed, though at a glacial pace weighed down by long, pregnant pauses and periods of relative inactivity — Vanessa is a former dancer who mostly prefers to hide from the world (often under oversized hats), while Roland is a writer who mostly spends his time in the local cafe, drinking and chatting to proprietor Michel (Niels Arestrup). Jolie Pitt gives a steely performance, all the better given her character is so closed off from both the world and even her husband. For me it’s Brad Pitt who’s the weak link here (though he’s a fine actor), and though it seems like this must be quite a personal film, the casting also gives the sense of a vanity project. Needless to say, I think Jolie has crafted something really out of step with the rest of American film culture, and it’s all the more welcome for that.

By the Sea film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Angelina Jolie [as “Angelina Jolie Pitt”]; Cinematographer Christian Berger; Starring Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Mélanie Laurent, Melvil Poupaud, Niels Arestrup; Length 122 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Tuesday 15 December 2015.

Maleficent (2014)

Disney’s output of late has focused on the way that bonds of family and friendship can be stronger and more meaningful than those between lovers, which is just as well for the Sleeping Beauty myth because it has always relied so heavily on non-consensual kissing that nowadays it sort of seems a bit creepy really (that scene is still here, but it’s played quite reasonably all things considered). Frozen dealt with Elsa and her sister the ice princess, while Maleficent instead focuses on Princess Aurora (our Beauty) and her relationship to the malevolent (or magnificent?) fairy of the film’s title, the one who curses her to eternal sleep on her 16th birthday at the outset.

In the way of such characters, Anjelina Jolie’s conflicted Maleficent runs away with the film; the blandly beaming Aurora (Elle Fanning) never stands a chance. The film’s turn, too, away from its twinkling, twee fairy-world vision of the start cannot come too soon — there’s only so much pastel-coloured paradisiacal nonsense that any viewer (well, this one, anyway) can take. As with Frozen, though, it’s just a pity that our eventual heroine, saviour of all our hearts, to whom all must pay obeisance, is so startlingly, blindlingly Aryan; there’s no questioning of beauty standards here, as even such silly frippery as Shrek managed years ago (a film series that very quickly outstayed its welcome, incidentally).

The central conflict in the film, expressed at the level of this relationship, is the division between the human and fairy worlds. (I might propose that, as the bearded bad guys are all Scottish while the elven fairies are English, this film is in fact a coded allegory about the dangers of a partition between Scotland and England, but then again maybe I’m just reading too much into it.) Certainly this central conflict between the autocratic humans and the ungoverned fairies isn’t really fully worked-through and seems to find benign aristocracy an acceptable compromise (perhaps the Scots just need to put more faith in the royal family?). It’s perplexing ideologically, and it’s perplexing tonally, but there’s enough here that’s enjoyable, particularly in Jolie’s star turn.

Maleficent film posterCREDITS
Director Robert Stromberg; Writer Linda Woolverton (based on the Disney film Sleeping Beauty); Cinematographer Dean Semler; Starring Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sam Riley, Sharlto Copley, Imelda Staunton; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at UGC Ciné Cité Les Halles, Paris, Sunday 6 July 2014.