Why Angelina Jolie’s Khmer Rouge movie sucks

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Angelina Jolie’s new movie on the Khmer Rouge tragedy in Cambodia, “First They Killed My Father,” saw its global release on September 15, and there was much anticipation not only from her followers and the Hollywood glitterati, but also from people interested in a possible new view on how this horrific historical episode of genocide and vulgar political zealotism could happen.

In a nutshell: This movie might enthuse one or another Netflix subscriber and the Los Angeles’ hipster crowd who haven’t been aware of Cambodian history before, but for someone living in Southeast Asia for many years and being familiar with past and present Cambodia, the movie is outright boring and inept in its attempt to describe, or let alone explain, what was behind what happened between 1975 and 1979 in Cambodia and which utterly complex events led to it.

Sure, the film currently has a 84 per cent audience score and even a 90 per cent critics score on Rotten Tomatoes, mainly lauding its “sensitiveness,” “empathy,” “colourfulness,” “expression,” “gorgeous photography” and so on.

But this is actually where the movie fails. Empathy is created through the main protagonist, a child who observes, but never really understands, what happened when the Khmer Rouge ruled her country.

Movie goers now watch a child watching the events in Cambodia in endless close-ups over more than two hours, while the film frustratingly keeps renouncing the intricate nature of this particular part of Cambodia’s history, giving no hints whatsoever what actually drove the country to turn daily life into a four-year nightmare. Some defended this approach to be experimental, others called it a major shortcoming.

Watching the main character watching quickly makes the whole story impersonal. There is no or little what could be describes as acting that would add a little life to the whole story. That way, the plot doesn’t make much sense for someone who hasn’t made their homework about the Khmer Rouge and their genesis. In its “respectfulness,” the characters are just as irrelevant as appear the victims of the genocide or its perpetrators who – in turn – show no character traits or something that would allow to decipher what made them join the Khmer Rouge movement and how defunct the social ecosystem must have been in Cambodia at that time to make them do so.

This leads to another issue with this film: The story is told from the perspective from an upper-class, formerly privileged Phnom Penh family, which was apparently part of the elite of the military-backed, anti-communist and US-supported Khmer Republic until 1975, whose policies contributed to the rise of the Khmer Rouge. This should also put the short appearance of Richard Nixon and his Vietnam warmonger Henry Kissinger in the prelude in a new perspective, especially for US audiences to whom this chapter in Southeast Asian history is rarely presented as it remains in the shadow of their defeat in Vietnam.

By leaving out these historic complexities, the movie becomes astonishingly plain given the potential it could have had for telling the conflicting ideas, experiences and desires the Cambodian people as a whole had at that time. Jolie might see it as an activist film, but she left out any inspiration that would have been mandated by this topic beyond the book on which the film is based. In all honesty – the movie just depicts indistinct characters in a story that does not convey much information on something that cries to be told with impulsiveness and intensity from a Cambodian perspective.

What also annoys with this movie, apart from the endless close-ups on shallow face expressions, are the repetitive drone shots on urbanites-turned-peasants wandering across the Cambodian countryside to their new forced work on rice farms: This picture is already culturally engraved and has been depicted a thousand times and more. Making it one of the few main stylistic features here over 136 painful minutes makes the movie’s storyline even more floppy.

And then there is the postcard-pretty cinematography which does not correspond with Cambodia’s reality now and then. Anyone who ever was in Cambodia will notice that the country is absolutely not resembling the oversaturated colours deployed in this movie. Cambodia is a dusty, oftentimes gritty place, and by brightening it up with artificial color palettes the film becomes emotionally deceptive. The same is true for the impeccable hairstyles of labour camp inmates and the impression that the protagonists must have been sent to a rustic holiday camp rather than to a genocide site.

“First The Killed My Father” is a missed – or better, forfeited – opportunity to tell the Khmer Rouge story from a Cambodian viewpoint. It, unfortunately, lacks compelling characters, it has blurry intentions and fails to leave a credible impact.

Despite the enormity of opportunities to describe, chronicle or explain in an artistic-activist manner the massive system failure of the Khmer Rouge with all the accompanying terror, torture, malnutrition, disease and dysfunction, the movie comes along as not much more than glossy brochure trying to aesthetise what it is unable to capture.

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Angelina Jolie's new movie on the Khmer Rouge tragedy in Cambodia, "First They Killed My Father," saw its global release on September 15, and there was much anticipation not only from her followers and the Hollywood glitterati, but also from people interested in a possible new view on how this horrific historical episode of genocide and vulgar political zealotism could happen. In a nutshell: This movie might enthuse one or another Netflix subscriber and the Los Angeles' hipster crowd who haven't been aware of Cambodian history before, but for someone living in Southeast Asia for many years and being familiar with...

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Angelina Jolie’s new movie on the Khmer Rouge tragedy in Cambodia, “First They Killed My Father,” saw its global release on September 15, and there was much anticipation not only from her followers and the Hollywood glitterati, but also from people interested in a possible new view on how this horrific historical episode of genocide and vulgar political zealotism could happen.

In a nutshell: This movie might enthuse one or another Netflix subscriber and the Los Angeles’ hipster crowd who haven’t been aware of Cambodian history before, but for someone living in Southeast Asia for many years and being familiar with past and present Cambodia, the movie is outright boring and inept in its attempt to describe, or let alone explain, what was behind what happened between 1975 and 1979 in Cambodia and which utterly complex events led to it.

Sure, the film currently has a 84 per cent audience score and even a 90 per cent critics score on Rotten Tomatoes, mainly lauding its “sensitiveness,” “empathy,” “colourfulness,” “expression,” “gorgeous photography” and so on.

But this is actually where the movie fails. Empathy is created through the main protagonist, a child who observes, but never really understands, what happened when the Khmer Rouge ruled her country.

Movie goers now watch a child watching the events in Cambodia in endless close-ups over more than two hours, while the film frustratingly keeps renouncing the intricate nature of this particular part of Cambodia’s history, giving no hints whatsoever what actually drove the country to turn daily life into a four-year nightmare. Some defended this approach to be experimental, others called it a major shortcoming.

Watching the main character watching quickly makes the whole story impersonal. There is no or little what could be describes as acting that would add a little life to the whole story. That way, the plot doesn’t make much sense for someone who hasn’t made their homework about the Khmer Rouge and their genesis. In its “respectfulness,” the characters are just as irrelevant as appear the victims of the genocide or its perpetrators who – in turn – show no character traits or something that would allow to decipher what made them join the Khmer Rouge movement and how defunct the social ecosystem must have been in Cambodia at that time to make them do so.

This leads to another issue with this film: The story is told from the perspective from an upper-class, formerly privileged Phnom Penh family, which was apparently part of the elite of the military-backed, anti-communist and US-supported Khmer Republic until 1975, whose policies contributed to the rise of the Khmer Rouge. This should also put the short appearance of Richard Nixon and his Vietnam warmonger Henry Kissinger in the prelude in a new perspective, especially for US audiences to whom this chapter in Southeast Asian history is rarely presented as it remains in the shadow of their defeat in Vietnam.

By leaving out these historic complexities, the movie becomes astonishingly plain given the potential it could have had for telling the conflicting ideas, experiences and desires the Cambodian people as a whole had at that time. Jolie might see it as an activist film, but she left out any inspiration that would have been mandated by this topic beyond the book on which the film is based. In all honesty – the movie just depicts indistinct characters in a story that does not convey much information on something that cries to be told with impulsiveness and intensity from a Cambodian perspective.

What also annoys with this movie, apart from the endless close-ups on shallow face expressions, are the repetitive drone shots on urbanites-turned-peasants wandering across the Cambodian countryside to their new forced work on rice farms: This picture is already culturally engraved and has been depicted a thousand times and more. Making it one of the few main stylistic features here over 136 painful minutes makes the movie’s storyline even more floppy.

And then there is the postcard-pretty cinematography which does not correspond with Cambodia’s reality now and then. Anyone who ever was in Cambodia will notice that the country is absolutely not resembling the oversaturated colours deployed in this movie. Cambodia is a dusty, oftentimes gritty place, and by brightening it up with artificial color palettes the film becomes emotionally deceptive. The same is true for the impeccable hairstyles of labour camp inmates and the impression that the protagonists must have been sent to a rustic holiday camp rather than to a genocide site.

“First The Killed My Father” is a missed – or better, forfeited – opportunity to tell the Khmer Rouge story from a Cambodian viewpoint. It, unfortunately, lacks compelling characters, it has blurry intentions and fails to leave a credible impact.

Despite the enormity of opportunities to describe, chronicle or explain in an artistic-activist manner the massive system failure of the Khmer Rouge with all the accompanying terror, torture, malnutrition, disease and dysfunction, the movie comes along as not much more than glossy brochure trying to aesthetise what it is unable to capture.

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