Features, Interviews

INTERVIEW: Loung Ung Talks All-Cambodian Cast Film, Bestselling Memoir, and Working with Angelina Jolie

Filmmaker Rithy Panh, activist Loung Ung, actor director Angelina Jolie and Pax Thien Jolie-Pitt attends The 75th Annual Golden Globe Awards at The Beverly Hilton Hotel. [Photo Courtesy of Frazer Harrison/Getty Images]

A few months ago, I sat down with Loung Ung and discussed what it was like to work with Angelina Jolie on the Netflix original film “First They Killed My Father.” The production was based on Ung’s own memoir and the ups and downs Ung had experienced throughout the writing process.

The elaborate process of writing Ung’s bestselling autobiography, “First They Killed My Father,” was a very personal and heart-wrenching journey. “The book was a very isolating experience,” she said. “The scene of all my family members dying, you know, it was hard for me to write about my father and my mother. I don’t know exactly what happened to them. I don’t know the exact date.”

Trailer of the Netflix original film, “First They Killed My Father”, Directed by Angelina Jolie and Loung Ung. [Video VIA Youtube]

As a writer, Ung explains how mentally taxing it was for her to be faced with the past memories she had. “What the eyes don’t see the mind makes up many scenarios, and so I had many many different scenes in my head of what might have happened to my family during the war and it was very upsetting for me,” she said.

When writing the memoir, Ung did not hesitate to put down on paper all the rawest moments of her life. “I chose the hardest one, I wanted people to know that it all exists in my head,” she said.

Angelina Jolie, her son Maddox Chivan and Loung Ung on the set of First They Killed My Father. [Photo Courtesy of North Country Public Radio]

Crafting this memoir brought upon flashbacks and memories for Ung, and the hardest part for her to write about was her mother and sister. “It breaks my heart to contemplate: were they together? Did my mother see my sister first? did my mother see my sister being dragged away?” she said.

Years after the book was published, Angelina Jolie decided to direct a film based on the memoir Ung wrote. Besides the film, which brought Ung and Jolie together, they also have a great friendship beyond work. “We have been friends for many years, and I’ve always known and trusted her as a woman, as a humanitarian, as a mother, as an activist, as a friend,” she said. Ung mentions how she and Jolie were friends before the film was created. “I know her well, I love her, and to have the opportunity to work with her as a filmmaker—that was new. I’ve never done that before.”

Here is a short audio segment I recorded while interviewing Loung Ung (and yes, of course I got permission from her to share this beforehand!)

A short audio segment of me interviewing Loung Ung about what it is like to direct the “First They Killed My Father” Netflix original film alongside Angelina Jolie, and what it is like to write about her heart-wrenching memoir.

As the writer of “First They Killed My Father,” Loung felt obligated to express the unique Khmer culture and people. Ung also explains how glad she felt when Jolie wanted to make “First They Killed My Father” a Cambodian film. “I’m so proud that the film was made in Cambodia, with an all Cambodian cast in the Khmer language, with thousands of Cambodian actress, costume designers, makeup artists, hairdressers, and lighting person.” she said.

“we were on it together, we came together.”

Loung Ung, january 2019

“I’m also proud of the fact that the Cambodians came together to do it, it was very painful for a lot of them. I was on the set where many Cambodians were crying and having memories—bad memories of losing their parents or grandparents—just like me,” she said. “But they came together, and they think this is important to do, and we were on it together, we came together.” Besides having an all-Cambodian cast, many of the actors actually survived through the war themselves, making this Cambodian “reunion” all the more special. “I feel very proud that we Cambodians, with Angelina Jolie, with writers like me, can put this film together,” she said.

Reviews, Verdict

“Factfulness”: The Problematic World View We Have Today

photo by Laura Hsu (yours truly), pictured above is my copy of “Factfulness” in front of a white brick backdrop.

“Factfulness” By Han Rosling talks about how the world is improving more than we imagine it to be. The first chapter provides the reader with a short 13 question quiz that highlights most readers’ misconception of the world. Rosling believes no one has fully grasped the basic global facts and how these facts have evolved or changed throughout the years. Which therefore leads people into an over dramatic world view. Rosling also talks about how human instinct contributes to how people view the world in extreme ways as well. 

Rosling breaks down these dramatic instincts into ten different categories. One of which involves the gap instinct, which describes how people tend to divide things into two very distinct groups. This divides most groups into the poor and the rich, or the developed or undeveloped countries. But the truth is, most countries in the world are somewhere in between this huge division. Another of which is the size instinct, it is a behavior where people misjudge or underestimate how the world has progressed and improved over time.

This book is packed with plentiful research, but is also equipped with uninviting aspects as well. The author’s tone in the beginning of the book came across as condescending. In fact, the information or data given feels like it is excessively polished, making it hard for the reader to disregard the slight bias the text seems to convey. 

Despite Rosling’s assertive tone throughout the text, I do rightfully enjoy “Factfulness” in which he makes efforts in spreading awareness about how we are wrong about the world, and that the world is better than we think it is. It is inspiring to see Rosling dedicate the last few years of his life to contribute in the creation of this book. He wrote the book along with his son and daughter-in-law after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Rosling died one year later, and his children carried on to complete the book “Factfulness”.


“What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up?” : The Dangers in Asking this Question

this is my grandma and her sister sitting with their dog 小白 in the year 1957 (the nostalgic feeling this picture evokes coordinates well with what I have to say in this article)

From the moment a child begins to speak, adults start to marvel at their innocence and honesty. They start to overwhelm kids with all sorts of questions, but one question, in particular, seemed alarming to me. Although the question may seem harmless and simple. It forces kids to be out of the moment, and pressures young children to join the harsh adult world too soon.

The first time I was asked this question was probably when I was six. I just started preschool, and all I could think of every day was what kind of chocolate bar I could bring to school, or if my sparkly gemstone jacket was trendy enough to show off to my friends.

Thinking about it now, I honestly had no idea what was going on in school half the time. When my teacher called on everyone to answer the question– what do you want to be when you grow up– it was surprising to see so many of my classmates shooting their hands up in the air, eager to answer the question. They would all reply with fascinating hopes and dream jobs for the future, like flying to the moon, becoming a successful businessman, or saving lives in the hospital.

And for me? I was the kid who was repeatedly asked to participate more in class. Teachers often said I was a shy girl who needed to gain more confidence in myself, since I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. So while transitioning from preschool to local elementary school, I noticed one key element all my friends shared. They all knew what they wanted to be when they grew up. While the same old me still did not know what to do with my life.

“Teachers often said I was a shy girl who needed to gain more confidence in myself, since I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up.”

The pressures of growing up, coupled with the pressures of this question brought more stress into my life every day. As much as I want to learn new things and new materials, my education had always been fixed upon the same schedule every year. There has never been a class or a genuine, down to earth talk with teachers to discuss new opportunities for the future in order to find our individual potentials. It was even harder to take electives I am genuinely interested in, due to the credits I must fulfill before pursuing other classes.

I know I am not the only one suffering from the severe pressures of growing up and finding a future occupation. I can say that almost all kids have been asked the same relentless question. Whether it was during preschool, or recently over Thanksgiving dinner. We have all suffered and gone through the long useless lectures of figuring out our destinies.

If adults just slow down a little, and allow kids to explore the fascinating world around them. Maybe they could find their true passions and stick to it when they grow older.

The purpose of our whole life should not be restricted to what society wants us to do. So next time someone mentions the question of “What do you want to be when you grow up?” confidently answer them with a quote from the famous realist Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy: To be happy.