First They Killed My Father [2017] – An Immersive Cambodian Genocide Drama with Few Shortcomings




The 2015 drama ‘By The Sea’ was the most disastrous directorial venture of Angelina Jolie. Compared with this marriage-in-crisis movie, Ms. Jolie’s previous two renderings of true historical catastrophes – In the Land of Blood and Honey (2011) & Unbroken (2014) -- seemed like a monumental work. Angelina Jolie had long been termed as the ‘wild girl’ of Hollywood with the harsh spotlight of sex and drugs hanging above her. Despite truly earning the position of top celebrity do-gooder (a special envoy to the UN, spent more than a decade campaigning for the rights of refugees and went on awareness-raising trips to dangerous war zones like Syria, Myanmar, Iraq, etc), Hollywood often scrutinizes her flaws to step-up the hate-meter. Ms. Jolie has proven how largely different she is from the privileged brats or alleged do-gooders of Hollywood who are destitute of goodwill or genuine altruism. Without undermining Jolie’s truly subversive and genuinely humane side, however, one must also acknowledge the emotionally cold or distant nature of her directorial techniques. Her fragmented artistic strategies conjure fine visuals and extract reasonably good performances, but are also undeniably cliched and emotionally unsatisfying. Taking into account such conceptual and narrative missteps, Angelina Jolie’s latest directorial undertaking First They Killed My Father (2017) could broadly be deemed as her best work so far. She makes odd blunders and there are the usual questions about the ethics of aestheticizing genocide terror, but for the most part Jolie delivers the powerful true story with incredible restraint and moving emotional quotient.

First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers was a non-fiction book (published in 2000) written by Cambodian author Loug Ung, a childhood survivor of Khmer Rouge’s terror reign which killed at least three million Cambodians. Loung’s poignant memoir starts from the days her siblings danced to rock music in Phenom Penh and gradually delves into the vortex of Pol Pot’s monstrous ideology which forced the 7 year old to become a child soldier. The heart of the film is Loung the child’s gaze. And director Jolie never forgets it as she clings to the devastating and fixed stare of her young protagonist. Angelina Jolie’s collaboration with Loung Ung in shaping the script and the inclusion of acclaimed documentarian Rity Panh (S-21, The Missing Picture) as a producer (Jolie’s adopted Cambodian son Maddox is listed as executive producer) makes sure that the autobiographical tale stays as a profound mood piece, braided with messages of warning and hope. Subsequently, the film is a well-focused and intimate vision of Khmer Rouge’s dehumanizing agendas.


Angelina Jolie somewhat eschews cultural appropriation and took the rightful decision to use local actors speaking Khmer language. Of course, her aesthetic approach is torn between paying tribute to Ung’s resilience and donning the role of a reporter examining the human costs of Khmer Rouge. She succeeds better in showcasing Ung’s survival than iterate the affecting details of Pol Pot’s legacy of terror. First They Killed My Father begins with Oliver Stone style montage with stock footage of Nixon sanitizing American policy on Cambodia juxtaposed with blitzkrieg unleashed on Cambodian civilians. Caught in the crossfires of American-Vietnam conflict (in early 1970s), some Cambodians believed in the deliverance promised by a radical communist movement. The historical video footage of Nixon’s ‘This is not an invasion of Cambodia’ speech insists how the violence that spilled into Cambodia’s borders indirectly led to the murderous regime between 1975 and 1979.


In the spring of 1975, Five year old Loung Ung (Sareum Srey Moch), her six siblings (three brothers and three sisters), government official father and housewife mother lead a fairly peaceful life in busy capital Phnom Penh. That is until the Khmer Rouge rebels sweep into the capital, and runs out the city’s entire population into the jungles. Ung has the universal qualities of a child who has grown up in warm-hearted family: curiosity, empathy, fear, and confusion over inhumaneness and death. Actor Phoeung Kompheak turns in a brilliant graceful performance as the titular father, who does his best to quell the children’s concerns. His eyes stay tender and reflect unbridled love despite the radical shift to dictatorial terror. Furthermore, it’s a good decision to not have included a voice-over or elaborate opening titles to explain the political details. Jolie & Ung decides to keep viewers in the state of bewilderment similar to that of their child protagonist. Jolie and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle’s creative flourishes frames the initial march away from the city through aerial shots, hinting at how Khmer Rouge saw the swarm of people as the disposable tools to achieve its agrarian utopia.

In order to evade execution for being loyal to the previous regime, Ung’s Pa passes himself as a worker and often warns his children to not reveal their true identities. After reaching the disparate labor camps, the family builds their straw and bamboo house. Khmer Rouge starts from the usual communist ideology of abandoning private assets but further ramps up its oppressive mood by mandating that everyone should wear clothes the same shade of black. Everyone, including the children, is forced to work in the fields, emotions are considered a weakness, and the idea of private space is non-existent. Despite harvesting bumper crops, the families are given the same quota of gruel. Loung Ung who doesn’t understand this relentless torture on farmlands often ponders in her head-space, conjuring vivid dreams about feasting from a smorgasbord. The more disorienting and harsh the child’s life becomes, the more fanciful the dream imagery becomes. After the act that’s hinted on the movie's title happens, Loung Ung and her sibling get separated from Ma. Loung is recruited as a child soldier. She learns to plant land mines and fire automatic weapons to massacre the Vietnamese ‘cockroaches’.


Director Jolie’s predominant aesthetic flair includes steadily moving point-of-view shots or over-the-shoulder shots, crisply capturing Ung’s disbelief on what’s unfolding. The narrative structure is designed around the escalating series of events that disunites the family. But Jolie’s perspective doesn’t remain exploitative or unnecessarily linger around for melodrama. The frames of Ung’s shell-shocked stillness serve as vivid form of contemplating the sadness and helplessness. Mantle’s cinematography (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours, Antichrist) are expressive and astonishingly beautiful without being flashy. Although the visuals are par excellence, Jolie at times employs too much of free-flowing Malick-ian shots to create meditative effect. These shots of sunlight streaming through densely populated trees, of placid faces assimilating the horror gets repeated much too often to become profound emotional force. Nevertheless, there are quite too many commendable directorial decisions. For example, she doesn’t amp up the misery of Ung’s predicament by relying on teary eyes or slo-mo shots or orchestral strings. The inevitable departure of Pa is effectively staged without relying on external factors of music or dramatized acting. We just see a restrained and assuring smile from Pa as he walks to meet his fate. There’s assortment of devastating visuals which includes the shot of Loung and her fellow child soldiers standing in waist-deep water holding Ak-47s behind the shoulders, while getting battered by the rain; and the menacing aerial shot of Ung trudging through mine-field.

May be Jolie’s film doesn’t boast the particularity and intimacy of the befuddled or haunted child’s gaze, witnessed in masterpieces like Rossellini’s Germany, Year Zero (1948), Rene Clement’s Forbidden Games (1952), Victor Erice’s The Spirit of Beehive (1973), Guillermo del Toro’s Pans Labyrinth (2006), etc. But she doesn’t use the desperate situation of a child for making aesthetically pleasing set-pieces – as done in Cary Fukanaga’s Beasts of No Nation (2015) which barring such flaws is otherwise a sobering portrayal of a boy soldier. Perhaps Jolie’s visual grammar is still very limited (which alternates between close-ups, wide shot & aerial shots and flashes back to visuals of better days, although the imagery here is far accomplished than previous efforts) compared to the vision of those cinematic masters. Yet, this film keeps us devastated and kindles some interest on the next movie project Jolie the director embarks upon.. 

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With ‘First They Killed My Father’ (136 minutes), Angelina Jolie ably channels her inherent altruistic intentions to make a truly affecting cinema. Barring few muddy narrative turns, the film’s indelible emotional core deserves a studied view. 


Anti Matter [2016] – An Imperfect yet a Fascinating Sci-fi on the Human Nature




Shane Carruth’s $7,000 indie movie Primer (2004) demonstrated how a minimalist approach and sprinkling of actual, complicated science could lead to an intriguing sci-fi premise. Even before Primer, there were micro-budget sci-fi films like The Fly (1986), Gattaca (1997), Cube (1997), Dark City (1998), Existenz (1999), The American Astronaut (2001), Cypher (2002), etc which not only delved into complexities of modern scientific discoveries, but also opened up philosophical questions about the human condition. The cult following of Primer has elicited production of similar hard sci-fi flicks (made on shoestring budget with non-actors) like The Man From Earth (2007), Upstream Color (2013), Coherence (2013), etc. On the other hand, there were twisted sci-fi's like Moon (2009), Ex Machina (2013) which had minimal budget and some professional actors. In the same vein, Keir Burrows’ Anti Matter (2016) creates an intimate and intriguing sci-fi drama without succumbing to the constraints of low budget.

Ana (Yaiza Figueroa), a Hispanic-American Oxford University PhD student, stumbles onto a path-breaking discovery. The film opens with Ana crying while listening to an old tape in which she and her mother play together the piano. The tenderness we witness in the phone exchanges between Ana and her mother indicates that her emotional connection plays a vital role in Ana’s science experiments. During an extended experiment in the lab, Ana generates a wormhole which transports matter (a simple molecule at first). Seeking help from friends and fellow researchers Nate (Tom Barber-Duffy) and Liv (Philippa Carson), she pushes the boundaries in generating and stabilizing the worm-hole so as to transport objects. After successfully testing with marbles and boxes, they send through caterpillar and cat without little bit of failure. Rendering and sustaining a worm-hole naturally needs a lot of computing power. So their systems expert Liv illegally sets off a worm to steal power which later brings government authorities to the campus doors to investigate possible case of cyber-terrorism.


In order to seek large-scale funding, the trio plans to access the discovery’s full potentialities, including the act of sending a human through the worm-hole. After drawing the short straw, Ana gets ready for the human test. As expected something goes wrong. The Ana who re-emerged through the worm-hole fails to keep track of time, doesn’t make any new memories and keeps on dreaming about a locked door in the basement lab. Nate and Liv behave in suspicious manner, shooting up Ana’s paranoia. The atmosphere around Ana slowly becomes chaotic as animal lovers outside the campus ramp up their protests (against experiments on animals inside the university) and the cyber authorities goes around the campus questioning students and faculties. It all leads to a more philosophical ending which puts out some interesting questions about memory, self-identification and existential pain.

The first twenty minutes where the three PhD students casually talk with scientific jargon creates a very believable sci-fi premise. Keir Burrows weaves a tense atmosphere and keeps intact the structural ambiguity till the end. From performance and script-wise, not everything flows smoothly. Burrows do struggle towards the end to neatly connect the emotional and intellectual quotient. The supporting performances are also underwhelming to instill complete emotional engagement. The whole episode involving government agent looks too contrived to create any palpable sense of dread. But Yaiza Figueroa’s central performance holds things together. Even when the narrative becomes unnecessarily goofy, our sympathies lies with Ana. Figueroa’s performance adds much-needed poignancy to the climactic queries. Despite certain missteps, sub-standard effects, and writing flaws, Anti Matter (106 minutes) proves to be a sophisticated sci-fi story that comprises of reasonable emotional and intellectual pull. Viewers who hate hard sci-fi may of course find the film to be too dry or less accessible. 

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Lady Macbeth [2016] – An Intense Period Piece Strengthened by Florence Pugh’s Wickedly Charismatic Avatar




The extraordinarily round-faced Florence Pugh, a relative newcomer last seen in Carol Morley’s sensuous psychological drama The Falling (2014), delivers stellar performance in her recent outing as Katherine, an impassioned young woman trapped within empty marriage in Victorian Era England. Katherine in William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth (2016) is first seen during her initiation into life long imprisonment, also termed as marriage arrangement. Her beautiful, decorous face is partially hidden behind a bridal veil, signaling the upcoming existential suffocation. Katherine is locked within Oldroyd’s picture-perfect symmetrical frames, her impassive stares conveying the stifling atmosphere. The camera begins to actually move only when she experiences fleeting moments of freedom and when her sexual desire is awakened. Based on Nicolai Letsov’s 19th century Russian novella ‘Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District’, the script for the film was written by feminist playwright Alice Birch. The novella has already been made into a movie and has its own ballet & opera versions. The opera premiered in Moscow, 1934 later received a scathing review from Stalin himself for the material’s alleged subversiveness. William Oldroyd and Birch’s adaptation with its austere visuals, static shots and subtly ironical observations takes an approach opposite to that of opera or theatre. Consequently, the director-writer duo alongside actress Pugh channelize their talents into this well-known narrative of adultery, murder and patriarchal brutality and turn it into a crackling examination of women’s predicament in domineering man’s world.

The plot is set in 1865 and the location is moved to isolated northern areas of England. Katherine is married (or sold off) to Alexander (Paul Hilton) who is twice older than her. The marriage seems to be a strict financial arrangement as a plot of land thrown in to seal the deal. Katherine moves into her husband's ancestral country home where she remains cloistered and demanded to fulfill a wife’s ‘duties’. Alexander, however, has no intention to meet his marital duties. In his own way, he defies his despotic father Boris (Christopher Fairbank) by showing no tenderness or passion towards Katherine; she becomes a humiliated pawn in father-son’s power game. Boris’ scrutinizing attitude further burdens Katherine with more rules. She is not allowed to sleep before her husband and forced to remain perched daily for few hours in the sitting room. So Katherine doesn’t feel bad when husband and father-in law are called away on business. Ordered to stay within the mansion, Katherine breaks the condition by walking around the misty and vibrant moors.


One day her attention is turned towards stable and she intrudes upon the sexual humiliation of a terrified black servant Anna (Naomi Ackie) under the hands of seemingly cruel, half-breed groomsman Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). In order to free herself from literal and figurative imprisonment, Katherine however strikes up a passionate affair with Sebastian who foolishly thinks he’s the one controlling their sexual power dynamics. Initially, he forces himself into Katherine’s room, but gradually the rage and desire for freedom that drives Katherine allows her to dominate over the farmhand. Her moral compass becomes murkier and the palpable sense of humanity gets eroded amidst patriarchal dominance and boredom. Anna, a mute spectator, is the only witness of her lady’s shocking turn towards immorality and in a way she remains as the embodiment of Katherine’s troubling conscience. The escalating acts of cruelty may raise questions of psychological plausibility, but the ever-shifting power dynamics within the house is portrayed in complex manner and naturally teases our empathy for the ‘wronged’ protagonist.


The rigid framework of marriage and the ensuing act of yearning and self-assertion in the form of adultery has been one of the recurring themes in 19th century American and European literature. Unsympathetic bourgeois society, sexually unappealing husbands, women’s doomed romantic desires are the basic devices of these literary descriptions. While Oldroyd and Birch’s interpretation of Letsov’s novella isn’t exactly revisionist in its approach, the narrative is fraught with themes of racial politics, social privilege and class conflict (they don’t commit the usual mistake of whitewashing costume dramas). Of course, the narrative could have been more profound if it had perfectly used the unspoken tension between Katherine and Anna, instead of rising labored questions about social disparity. Director Oldroyd, however, comes off great when exploring Katherine wilful chase for independence down the bleakest path. His visual style (cinematography by Ari Wegner) orchestrated with symmetrical, static shots and few close-ups brilliantly captures the transformation of a na├»ve bride to manipulative and malevolent feminine force. Oldroyd and writer Alice Birch also weaves the crime and its consequences without bringing upon strict judgment on the characters. My favorite visuals in the narrative are the shots that capture Katherine’s oppression and tedium inside the claustrophobic setting of undesirable marriage (the shot of Katherine lying down in sitting room's sofa almost resembles a great Renaissance-era painting). In classic novels like Gustav Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, the subject of boredom in bourgeois household becomes a vital element in setting up the events. Mr. Oldroyd and Wegner splendidly capture Katherine’s ennui which changes the nature of her soul. The casting is more than perfect. Florence Pugh, with her wide eyes and arrogant display of beauty moves like bundle of energy, effortlessly slipping between the roles of wronged and wrongdoer. She keeps us fascinated throughout her small rebellions and rattles us by the burgeoning display of wickedness. Moreover, Pugh and Naomi Ackie’s performances smooths out the unconvincing or rough-edge elements of the plot.   

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Lady Macbeth (89 minutes) takes the familiar Victorian era tale of adulterous young woman trapped in loveless marriage to induce refreshing and timely examination of femininity, lust, independence and impassivity. The extremely measured writing, direction and phenomenal performances lend a chilling movie experience.