The promotional subtitle of First They Killed My Father (as well as the subtitle of the 2000 memoir from which it has been adapted) is A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, and it's that last word, "remembers", that ends up being the key to the whole film. With a screenplay adapted by Loung Ung and director Angelina Jolie, the film is the biographical story of what happened to Ung when she was a five-year-old in 1975, at the time that the Khmer Rouge began its four-year program of mass killing, with some 25% of the Cambodian population dead by the time the killings stopped. But it's not journalism, so much as a chain of impressions; this is also the story of the 47-year-old Ung sifting through her memories, necessarily fragmented and partial: from the passage of time, from the self-protecting cocoon of forgetting trauma, and from the simple fact that a five-year-old girl isn't going to be the most attentive or zealously objective observer of the events that occur in front of her in the best of circumstances. As these surely were not.

Let me get right to it: I found this to be an extraordinary piece of cinema. Looking through the reviews, it appears to be easy (extremely easy, in fact), to find some way to view this through the lens of "noted narcissistic humanitarian Angelina Jolie has finally made a genuinely impressive film, but she's working more in the spirit of Well-Intentioned Pandering than Communicating Lived Experience", and I really just don't get that at all. Aye, it's all sorts of fun to be pissy about Jolie, whose first work as a director, In the Land of Blood and Honey, very much felt like an A-student's showily over-researched term paper written with glassy, dead prose. And I am content if we all forget about Unbroken and By the Sea altogether.* But First They Killed My Father is just a really damned extraordinary piece of work, and dismissing it as opportunistic misery porn is doing a disservice not just to Jolie, but to Ung as well, whose attempt to grapple with her past trauma in plain sight of everybody deserves better than for her to be cast as the accessory to Jolie's white guilt complex.

Ung's story is, at any rate, a sturdy subject for cinematic treatment. As a child (played by Sareum Srey Moch), she enjoyed a rather comfortable life as one of the children of a government official (Phoeung Kompheak). That turned the family into a high-profile target once the Khmer Rouge came to power, and the lot of them fled the city of Phnom Penh, spending some time hiding in small villages before ultimately splitting apart. Loung, tenacious and bright, was found and placed into an indoctrination camp, to be trained as a child soldier.

First They Killed My Father is certainly not one thing: a high-minded attempt to educate its audience about a very terrible period in history. Of course, that impulse isn't wholly absent, but Jolie and Ung eschew virtually all of the broader context that would leave the film serving primarily as a lesson. The film is about Loung's highly subjective, circumscribed experience of the hell of 1975 (and possibly later; part of the strategy here is to blur the precise passage of time), and while the occasional shot here or there will depart from her strict perspective (Jolie and crew sometimes punctuate the film with aerial shots of refugees or prisoners crawling along the road, always serving to snap our attention to the wide scale of suffering that we're watching in otherwise tiny fragment), the vast bulk of the film is entirely beholden to its protagonist's understanding of the world around her.

This demands an unusual stylistic approach, combining a frank look at the atrocities that cross Loung's path with fluid, chronologically ambiguous impressionism in the editing. In which connection, one must bring up the cinematographer, Anthony Dod Mantle, whose crisp images capture the inherent beauty of the Cambodian landscape as seen through the eyes of an adventurous child while bluntly capturing the acts Loung witnesses without over-stylising anything; it's a movie that always looks striking, combining the genuinely gorgeous with the acutely disgusting in some curious, uncomfortable blend (it's also quite possible the most effective work of Dod Mantle's career). And too, one must name editors Xavier Box and Patricia Rommel, who neatly juggle the shifting angles around their main subject, and through her very eyes, propelling us headlong through the plot's chaos, and at the same time fluidly blending in the numerous flashbacks to Loung's more peaceful time before the violence started, as her childish mind keeps retreating their as a way of staving off present misery.

The result is a highly subjective and enormously sympathetic film that remains crisp and cold in its documentary-like staging, a difficult balancing act that all concerned carry off beautifully, especially Jolie and Moch, the former directing the latter towards a discomfitingly observant series of expressions interrupted by blasts of emotional upheaval. The number of individually gripping images is considerable: not just the obvious mental scars of the Khmer Rouge violence (a scene where a group of girls find a man's dead, rotting body washed up against a river bank is all the more horrifying for its unstressed austerity), but also the softer memories of the girl's father and mother (Sveng Socheata), exactly the kind of calming anchor that would serve as a buffer for a girl in time of trauma and an adult woman reliving her childhood suffering. It's all so intuitive and subjective as to border on experimental filmmaking, but always tethered to such brutal realities that it never drifts into abstraction.

The film's only meaningful flaws are, unfortunately, magnified by their position: the opening and closing scenes are both pretty bad. The opening, in particular, is simply horrendous: a montage of news footage and headlines recapping the grotesque, illegal bombing campaign on Cambodia initiated by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger as the American war in Vietnam started going all the way wrong, set to the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil". Besides how little this has to do with the particular way this film addresses the situation of Cambodia in the 1970s, it's trite as hell, and it makes it hard to trust the film for a decent while thereafter. The final scene is more dubious than actually bad; it's a present-day coda that more than slightly resembles the final scene of Schindler's List, and is slightly off-putting and self-regarding in much the same way; but it makes things worse yet by capping things with a tremendously misguided final shot, a dreamy helicopter shot that backs away from the action with a sort of fairy tale-esque vibe, and quite violates the specificity of the high-angle shots scattered all throughout the film.

Unmistakable, even indefensible problems, and well-positioned to sour the movie; but film-breaking mistakes? God no. First They Killed My Father is a stunning achievement: a thoughtfully complex aesthetic object that presents its subject without the teariness and audience pandering that usually attends to this kind of movie when it's being implicitly positioned for awards consideration. This is a clear-headed, intelligent movie, not a heaving, emotionally cathartic one, and that approach to this subject feels more honest about the historical events and Ung's life amongst those events than any more conventional production could have done.

*The natural corollary: Jolie must stop directing films in the English language.