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.

Rush (2013)

Director Ron Howard has enjoyed a lot of mainstream success for his feature films over the past few decades, while screenwriter Peter Morgan has done plenty of good character work dealing with primarily British subjects. They collaborated a few years back on Frost/Nixon (2006), about the English broadcaster’s interviews with the disgraced American President, but this new film sees them dealing with a far more populist and entertaining subject, Formula 1 motor racing. And it is indeed very entertaining.

Morgan’s last foray into sports was The Damned United (2009), though its focus on an historical aspect within English football probably made it of marginal interest to the rest of the world. I’m given to understand that Formula 1 is not exactly a big draw in North America either, but I’m pretty sure you don’t have to know much about it to enjoy the film. I say that because I am largely ignorant of any of its details, aside from the fact that a bunch of low-slung very fast cars race around a track about 80 times. And while I’d heard the name of Austrian driver Niki Lauda, I didn’t know anything about him nor had I heard at all of the English driver James Hunt (the other protagonist of Rush) or of the two drivers’ rivalry.

It’s that rivalry which is at the heart of this film, particularly as it affected the race during the 1976 championship season in which Lauda was critically injured. Chris Hemsworth is energetic as the playboy James Hunt, rarely to be seen without a beer in his hand or dragging on a cigarette, and with a devil-may-care attitude to racing and to life. His rival is Lauda, played by Daniel Brühl as a mousy and unpleasant young man with a passion for tinkering with his cars. Neither of them — as seems to be the rule with Formula 1 drivers — are particularly nice people, being primarily addicted to the thrill of driving, but are given a bit of depth by the observant writing and Hemsworth and Brühl’s acting skills.

For all that I greatly enjoyed Rush, I haven’t really got a lot of knowledgeable things to say about it, I confess. Howard’s direction is polished as ever, attentive to his actors’ expressive faces, and to the grounding role played by the other drivers, their engineering teams, the money men who bankroll them all (for it is undeniably a very male-oriented sport), and by the women in their lives, particularly Lauda’s wife Marlene (a serene Alexandra Maria Lara). There’s some rather graphic medical detail — it is a dangerous sport after all — and the way the 1976 season unfolds is grippingly essayed.

For all that it’s a sports film or a film about high-speed cars, Rush is above all a well-tooled Hollywood-style blockbuster, with a finely-honed and effectively-conveyed sense of unfolding drama. It all zips by at a fair pace, and if I don’t find myself challenged exactly, it’s never egregiously offensive or boring. A fine rendition of a corner of recent sporting history that doesn’t get so much of an outing on the big screen, and I’d happily sit through it again.

Rush film posterCREDITS
Director Ron Howard; Writer Peter Morgan; Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle; Starring Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Brühl, Alexandra Maria Lara, Olivia Wilde; Length 122 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Sunday 15 September 2013.