The Killing Fields


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Killing Fields
"Himself a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime, lucky to have escaped with his life, Ngor subsumes himself in the role in a way that makes one wonder that he made it through filming without losing his mind."

Between 1976 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge held power in Cambodia - then formally the Republic of Kampuchea - and, between deliberate execution and starvation, around a quarter of its population was killed, the war that followed costing the lives of many more. Perhaps one of the most shocking things about this is how little public awareness there was of it at the time in the West, and how little it is remembered there now. The Killing Fields helped to change the former, and its release on DVD and blu-ray now may help to change the latter.

It's very difficult to tell historical stories on this scale and have people still relate to them, still comprehend what they are seeing. On the film's release, the only real criticism from the Cambodian community was that it wasn't as brutal as the reality they'd experienced, but the team behind it understood that less is more and that they needed to communicate first and foremost to an audience for which such horrors were unthinkable. They also understood the importance of centering the film on a human story - as it happens, a real one.

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The film opens in 1973, when US forces pursuing their Vietnamese enemies bombed a Cambodian town. Covering the story was US journalist Sydney Schanberg (played here by Sam Waterston), working with local photographer Dith Pran (Haing S Ngor). Together they follow events leading up to the ascendancy of the Khmer Rouge, and when it's time for others to be evacuated, both choose to stay. Schanberg, however, has the option of being evacuated later. For Pran, things are much more difficult. Whilst his friend escapes to be praised for his bold journalism, he is forced to conceal his past and his education to survive in a harsh world of forced labour, and eventually to attempt a perilous escape.

This is a film in which every detail is perfectly realised, from Chris Menges' powerful cinematography to the complex musical landscape created by Mike Oldfield, which takes us from a young Khmer soldier touring the site of a massacre whilst listening to Band On The Run to sweeping orchestral movements, Western classical music reshaped by Eastern instrumentation. Waterston deftly retains audience sympathy for Sydney whilst showing us his weaknesses, lets us see the pain he feels at the absence of his friend without hiding the awareness of his own contribution to the situation. John Malkovich draws on his family background in newspapers to turn in a strong early performance as Schanberg's colleague, whilst Julian Sands hints at the brilliant career he might have had if A Room With A View had not condemned him to being perpetually miscast.

All this is overshadowed, however, by Ngor's riveting performance as Pran. Himself a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime, lucky to have escaped with his life, he subsumes himself in the role in a way that makes one wonder that he made it through filming without losing his mind. The very real fear he felt in revisiting the nightmare is etched on his character's face, yet despite this being his first acting role he represents Pran as a complex, rounded person very different from himself. It's through him that the viewer is able to gaze across marshlands full of rotting corpses and recognise that they represent real human beings. Some of the film's most powerful sequences see Ngor acting opposite other Cambodian refugees, each of them carrying a weight of fear and sorrow that speaks volumes.

Working with something so raw was clearly an immense challenge for all concerned, and it's a tribute to Bruce Robinson's finely balanced script that the narrative elements survive amidst the chaos surrounding them. The decision not to use subtitles when four different languages are spoken n the film gives it, at times, a surreal quality; most viewers will be in ignorance some of the time, but may consequently connect more effectively with the sense of disorientation that develops for the characters. Words seem to have little meaning anyway in the context of what is happening, in a world where philosophy and ideology are increasingly giving way to something that is simply animal, a place where "only the silent survive". In the final scene, where we once again hear the voice of John Lennon, it's a shock to be reminded that all this took place in the modern world. The familiar has become alien. We have become lost in the landscape of the killing fields.

Reviewed on: 03 Nov 2014
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The Killing Fields packshot
A journalist and photographer are separated when the Khmer Rouge takes power in Cambodia, one winning awards, the other struggling to survive.
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Director: Roland Joffé

Writer: Bruce Robinson

Starring: Sam Waterston, Haing S Ngor, John Malkovich, Julian Sands

Year: 1984

Runtime: 141 minutes

Country: UK


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