Sreymoch Sareum stars in Netflix's "First They Killed My Father."

Sreymoch Sareum stars in Netflix's "First They Killed My Father." Credit: Netflix

PLOT A little girl struggles to survive the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia during the 1970s. Based on the memoir by Loung Ung.

CAST Sreymoch Sareum, Kompheak Phoeung

RATED Not rated


PLAYING AT Streaming on Netflix and screening at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and iPic in Manhattan.

BOTTOM LINE Angelina Jolie’s latest is more earnest than engrossing. (In Khmer, with English subtitles)

Measured solely in terms of lives taken, the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia under Pol Pot during the 1970s remains one of history’s biggest atrocities, with a death toll of roughly 3 million. Harder to quantify is the sheer insanity of the undertaking. Driven by militarism and a feverish agrarian socialism, Cambodia committed a bizarre self-genocide, purging itself of its own people through forced labor and starvation until the barely-functioning country fell to an invasion from neighboring Vietnam.

“First They Killed My Father,” Angelina Jolie’s adaptation of Loung Ung’s memoir of the period, is a sincere attempt to paint a portrait of a country gone mad. Loung, played by Sreymoch Sareum, is 5 years old when the Khmer Rouge marches into her city, Phnom Penh, the national capital, in 1975.

Within a few days, she and her family — including five siblings — are transferred to a work camp where they are stripped of their belongings and their colorful city clothes are dyed a depressing gray. Death hovers around them in the form of malnutrition, capricious executions and recruitment to the front, but the gravest danger is that Loung’s father (Kompheak Phoeung) will one day be revealed as a former official in Lon Nol’s fallen government, and therefore an enemy of the state.

It’s never easy to make a feature film about atrocity. The whole point of an oppressive regime is to strip away humanity, and movies that tackle the topic often unintentionally do the same. Horror replaces story; characters are stifled by misery. Jolie, a skilled and sensitive filmmaker (“The Land of Blood and Honey”), convincingly depicts the illogical hell of the Khmer Rouge era, but she seems more interested in the events than in Loung as a person. We empathize with this little girl, of course, but we never quite get inside her head.

It’s worth noting that “First They Killed My Father” arrives as Cambodia seems to be entering another authoritarian phase, silencing journalists, arresting opposition figures and putting pressure on pro-democracy organizations. If Jolie’s film feels slightly more like a history lesson than a compelling drama, it’s still worthwhile viewing.

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