Friday 21 December 2018

Movie Review: The Killing Fields (1984)

A historical drama, The Killing Fields delves into the horror of war and subsequent genocide in 1970s Cambodia.

It's 1973, and New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterston) is covering the American secret war in Cambodia. He is ably assisted by local journalist and all-round fixer Dith Pran (Haing S. Ngor). They are joined by laid back photographer Al Rockoff (John Malkovich) and British journalist Jon Swain (Julian Sands). A civil war is also tearing Cambodia apart, and by 1975 the communist Khmer Rouge revolutionary forces gain the upper hand against the government.

The Americans evacuate from the capital Phnom Penh, and Sydney arranges for Pran's family to leave. But Pran stays behind with the foreign reporters, and helps release them from captivity when crazed Khmer Rouge militiamen overrun the capital. Later all remaining foreigners take refuge in the French embassy and are eventually evacuated, but Pran as a local is forced to stay behind. Shipped to the countryside as a labourer, he has to pretend to be an uneducated taxi driver to try and survive a horrific genocide perpetrated by the new regime.

Based on real events, The Killing Fields uncovers the atrocities of war through the story of a deep friendship between two reporters. Directed by Roland Joffé and produced by David Puttnam, the film creates an overwhelming sense of despair at warmongers' insatiable ability to cause inhumane suffering at a massive scale.

With minimal dialogue, unblinking camerawork and no shortage of gore, Joffé recreates a country descending into hell, first with the help of foreign intervention and then through a particularly virulent form of communism that literally aimed to set the country back to year zero. But The Killing Fields adds to its impressive impact by also spending time on the restless pauses between events, the hours and days of waiting for something to happen as boredom and agitation dominate the psyche.

Plenty of dialogue is in the local Khmer language or French, and Joffé provides no subtitles, heightening the sense of realism for journalists trying to piece together the story in a foreign land. The hazards of the profession are well represented, but the film is mostly concerned with the suffering of the locals: foreigners like Schanberg have evacuation avenues open to them, and can flee despite the overwhelming guilt packed into their luggage. The locals have to endure whatever twisted notions of rebuilding the victors choose to impose.

And in the film's harrowing second half the focus switches firmly to Dith Pran's remarkable ordeal of survival, the country now run by madmen and children carrying rifles. Dith witnesses the killings, barely survives several brushes with death, and traverses a countryside littered with mass open graveyards. And as the abominations unfolded and around 1.7 million people were slaughtered, the world could not be bothered to care, eager to forget the doomed military misadventures in southeast Asia.

In his first acting performance, Dr. Haing S. Ngor, himself a survivor of the Cambodian killing fields, won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor (although Pran is very much the lead character in the film). Ngor bring a level of exceptional authentic humanity to the role, whether never giving up on talking his way to survival or silently observing the carnage unfold while plotting his next escape.

The Killing Fields portrays the disheartening reality of brutal military conflicts, and the rousing exhilaration of friendships enduring over the years and across oceans.

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