Cracking open Cambodia’s isolationist shell and revealing the barbarism of Khmer Rouge occupation with such painful realism couldn’t have been an easy accomplishment for director Roland Joffé. And yet with, The Killing Fields, Joffé captures the multifaceted tragedy of the country’s communist oppression with startling reality.
It’s a story that certainly deserves a place on the big screen. Comparable with The Battle of Algiers and Schindler’s List, The Killing Fields is not an easy or even entertaining watch. It is, however, a necessary watch, chronicling as it does the effects of absolute power and cruelty upon a populace – all of which is presented in a fashion that refuses to shirk away from the gory truth.
Set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, he film opens in Cambodia’s capital in 1973 and charts the relationship between New York Times journalist Sydney Schanberg and his Cambodian interpreter Dith Pran as the country slides into chaos. As Pol Pot’s “Year Zero” rips through the country, Schanberg and Pran separated. Schanberg spends the next five years trying to rescue his friend while Pran endures the horrendous cruelty of the ultra left wing regime.
As Joffé mentions on the DVD’s yack-track, The Killing Fields is as much a love story as it is a morality tale, and this is highlighted by the on-screen chemistry between the leading actors. Sam Waterston portrays Schanberg with the impetuousness and spirit you would expect from a cinematic journalist, but also embodies the considerable ethical dilemma that rocks him as the pair is separated with an emotional heaviness.
But the film’s standout performance is from Haing S Ngor. A doctor before acting, Ngor shines in what is surprisingly his first film role. Ngor dealt with the Khmer Rouge’s brutality first hand as he was separated from his pregnant wife by the regime and forced to work in the countryside before escaping to neighbouring Thailand. Drawing on these experiences, Ngor draws on these traumas to deliver a heart wrenching performance of unquestionable believability and authenticity.
The Killing Fields is a film that pulls no punches. Scenes and snapshots will last with you forever. Particularly galling is when Pran manages to evade his captors and awakens in a field of rotting corpses – indisputable evidence of the Khmer Rouge’s viciousness. A section set inside a Coca-Cola factory is a poignant reminder of the American origin of the conflict – a cynical bombing campaign to root out North Vietnamese guerrillas in Northern Cambodia.
Joffé handles the film expertly. Scenes of tension are nearly unbearable and the scenes of violence are grainy, gritty and all the more poignant given that these are all real events. The film’s first half, expertly shot by Chris Menges, is an almost unrivalled document of the chaos and confusion of an armed revolution.
It’s not a perfect film, however. The ending scene teeters on the edge of over-sentimentalism and the film’s often-intrusive score is positively schizophrenic. But these are minor complaints.
On the whole The Killing Fields is really Joffé’s masterpiece. Unflinching and ultimately a brave film (It was released in 1984 – a time when Cambodia was still in the grips of sever inner turmoil), The Killing Fields remains a compelling, if harsh, piece of cinematic realism.