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If I am going to recommend a documentary, then Nanking will be it. The
Rape of Nanking just prior to World War II is examined in this film,
which contains real stock footage of clips smuggled out of China during
the time of Japanese occupation. Interviews with surviving Chinese
victims, and a number of Japanese Imperial Army soldiers who took part
in the campaign, are conducted by the filmmakers, and it is always
chilling to learn from them first hand, on their respective perspective
of those horrible years of the Japanese invasion of China.
You will definitely squirm at the tearful, vivid recollection of atrocities from rapes, shootings, knifing from bayonets, and even burning, while the archive clips bring to screen scenes and pictures of such barbaric acts. Tales of plundering, looting, the forceful taking away of young men to be shot and young girls or boys, children even, for brutal rape, are told with an unflinching eye. In fact, nothing is re-enacted in this film, opting instead for actors (such as Woody Harrelson, Mariel Hemmingway and Michelle Krusiec) to portray real historical characters and only as narrators of their personal diaries and memoirs of their stay in Nanking during the invasion and subsequent occupation.
While the rest of the world stood by and did nothing, a handful of foreigners who opted to stay in the city, did what they could by organizing themselves and setting up a Safety Zone for the Chinese refugees, using all the power that they could (which was very little, save for the fact that they are foreigners) to protect their charges from the looting, plundering, killing and rape that takes place on a regular basis outside their zone. And it is indeed this Zone which had saved thousands of lives, that this documentary paid a sort of tribute to.
If this is an anti-war picture, then I'd say it would have done a very good job, highlighting the immense amount of evil that man is capable of inflicting on fellow man. Even up until today, the Massacre of Nanjing is still hotly debated, especially on the number of unfortunate casualties and victims, and the enshrinement of war criminals which have irked the Chinese.
As a Chinese, I knew the Nanking massacre when I was young. I was
frightened when I saw so many horrible pictures taken at that time.
When I learned that the film Nanking would be shown, I was hesitated. I
should watch it because I'm a Chinese, but I didn't have the nerve. I
didn't have the nerve to see my countrymen being butchered most
brutally and I didn't want to arouse the sad memories.
After a week of hesitation, I went to the cinema and watched it finally. I really want to know more about the truth. When I was sitting in the cinema and watching, my tears kept rolling down. I felt my heart so cold and my head so painful. I feel so painful for my countrymen at that time and so moved by the foreigners who risked their own lives for saving the innocent and helpless Chinese.
The massacre did happened. No one can deny. I appreciated Ms Chang who bravely wrote the book and the directors of this movie. It tells the truth yet does not arouse the hatred. A sentence in the movie impressed me a great deal, it approximately goes like this: We don't make you to hate the Japanese, we want you to know how horrible war is.
Yes, we hate war and love peace.
I saw the film at Sundance as part of a packed house for a third or fourth screening. I've seen the story of Nanking depicted before but never with the confidence I had that this was how it really was. It was like watching three Shindlers save the Chinese, and Spielberg's Shoa, all rolled into one perfect film. A panel of actors speak the lines from letters and diaries of European/American witnesses and Chinese and Japanese survivors tell their stories themselves on film. It's not just a narrator interpreting the events - it's the voices of the people who were there. The story line is well honed accompanied by stills, 16 mm smuggled out by one of the foreigners, and the actors provide voice for the foreigners. It is an incredibly moving and informative film. I sat next to two couples, two Japanese American men married to Chinese American women. One wife had seen the film the night before, and our night she brought everyone else back with her. I spoke with one of the husbands and he said that out of scale of 5 he gave it a 7. For the rest of the week I ran into others who saw the film and everyone said that they thought it was the best documentary they had ever seen in their lives. I totally agree.
"Nanking" is a film that derives a devastating power from its staid
remembrance of humanity's capacity for suffering, its capacity for evil
and its capacity for good. It catalogues one of the most horrifying
events in the history of the continent. As an overture for the Second
World War, the Rape of Nanking was hell on earth. Nanking, the then
bustling capital of China, was savagely brutalised by the invading
Japanese military force in the summer of 1937. First, the air raids
began tearing through the city's economy, destroying the lives of its
citizens, leaving them helpless to the inevitable slaughter by the
approaching troops. As the city's expatriates and those with money
scurried to flee, a foreign contingent made up of the clergy, teachers
and professionals stayed behind to protect and aid the destitute.
Directors Bill Guttentag and Bill Sturman pay tribute to those 22 men and women whose courage and kindness enabled them to establish a provisional safety zone that provided refuge for over 200,000 civilians, despite being outnumbered by a belligerent army angered at having the "eyes of the world" on them. Somewhere between being a cogent docudrama of heroism and a harrowingly powerful documentary of an unfathomable catastrophe, the vivid characterisations of these Americans and Europeans are crafted through the film's well-envisioned and excellently staged readings by its weathered performers that include: Woody Harrelson, Mariel Hemingway, Stephen Dorff and most notably Jurgen Prochnow. The letters and anecdotes of the expatriate saviours that provide the point-by-point narration carries with it a cutting, painful urgency and is delivered with compelling ideas of responsibility and personal anguish by the thespians and various composite characters.
Much of the film's haunting intensity comes from its use stock footage to recall the horrors of the past. The seamlessly inducted black and white archival footage of wartime atrocities capture the sorrow and ad hoc sentiments of people long gone, even as their cries and pain linger and reverberate throughout history. It adds to its sentience by summoning the voices and memories of Chinese survivors, their tears and pained expressions leading the way to the film's most enduring interviews. When one interviewee recalls how his mother breastfed his infant brother even as she was dying from being bayoneted through the chest, this anecdote ominously carries with it the burden of indescribable truth and inexplicable iniquity and a discovery of unknown depths of madness. Then the interviews with the surviving Japanese soldiers show remorselessness and the descriptions of the matter-of-fact executions and acts of depravity convey a sense that living through the war has changed these men irreparably. The footage and interviews show how the perspectives seen through the eyes of humanity are reconfigured during times of war when sin becomes justified and decency is abandoned.
The shared human consciousness between the foreigners and ravaged citizenry is indelibly considered in Prochnow's recital of the German businessman and Nazi sympathiser John Rabe's journal entry, a detail from memory made fecund by time: "Shouldn't one make an attempt to help them? There's a question of morality here, and so far I haven't been able to sidestep it." This pronouncement is a scathing indictment of the denials, and of the deliberate obscuration of truths so oppressive that it is met with ethical and universal repercussions. The preclusions of accountability are present even today, as other parts of the world are mired in invasions, Rabe's conundrum is still a relevant inquiry that is responded with an uncomfortable silence.
Filmmakers Guttentag and Sturman have produced a short but
unforgettable documentary about one of the ugliest stories in twentieth
century warfare: the event known as "the rape of Nanking." During a
brief period in late December 1937 Japanese forces bombed the city of
Nanking, then the capital of China, moving on after assaulting
Shanghai. Much of the city's population fled. But the poor had to
remain, lacking the money to get out. Troops then moved in and brutally
executed several hundred thousand civilians using guns and bayonets and
fire, and raped tens of thousands of woman, leaving most of the once
beautiful, prosperous city in ruins. They also immediately executed, by
various methods, thousands of captured soldiers.
The positive side of the story is that a group of foreigners, perhaps less that two dozen, who had been resident in Nanking remained there to help save the helpless civilians (and soldiers who had fled) and created a Safety Zone to protect them. It was not respected, but nonetheless they were able to save perhaps another couple of hundred thousand people.
The presentation lasts only 88 minutes but is packed with mind-boggling material. Using a ground approach similar to the Culture Project's theater events 'Exonerated' and 'Guantanamo,' in which a group of actors dramatically read actual accounts, the foreigners' stories (and that of one Japanese soldier) are reconstructed by Stephen Dorff, Woody Harrelson. Mariel Hemingway, and others. In between their accounts there are interviews with Chinese survivors and some Japanese soldiers involved in the massacres.
The most important foreigners are Bob Wilson, Minnie Vautrin, and John Rabe, whose accounts are voiced by Harrelson, Hemingway, and Jürgen Prochnow, respectively. Wilson was a surgeon born in China, son of a missionary, who stayed on after the bombing. Vautrin was a missionary and head of the education department of a college; she hid her women students and saved them from being raped. Rabe was a German businessman and Nazi Pary member who protected hundreds of Chinese civilians on his estate. He and Wilson and Magee were the most active in establishing the two-square-mile Safety Zone that provided a shaky but essential shield for refugees who fled their homes.
There are some film clips of killings. John Magee (voiced here by Hugo Armstrong) was an Episcopal minister and a filmmaker who helped maintain a hospital. His film footage of maimed and disfigured victims of the atrocities was smuggled out of the country and only discovered in the 1980s in Germany.
The accounts of the foreigners provide a sense of the time line and the main events of Nanking. But it is the Chinese survivors, bravely describing unimaginable horrors, who make the most vivid impression. I say "unimaginable," but we have heard about them as children, perhaps, and all imagined them. But here they are, described as vividly as if they happened yesterday, to a mother and a baby brother, right before the eyes of a seven-year-old. What must it be like to have been that seven-year-old and to carry such memories through all one's life? That is what one doesn't want to imagine.
Some of the Japanese veterans are smiling as they speak. They acknowledge the rapes and atrocities and massacres and tell how they did it. (How can they be smiling? Perhaps out of embarrassment. Or is the word shame? These are the most troubling moments of the film.) The dozen or so high ranking Japanese officers who were convicted of war crimes afterward have a memorial in their name in Tokyo and it is a place where right-wing pro-war Japanese like to hold rallies. Getting the films of Japanese survivors was a tricky business, because people in Japan don't want to acknowledge, or even talk about, this moment in their history. They have often denied that things were as bad as some said. The evidence of the film, and the accounts of the Japanese veterans themselves, disproves those denials. We have witnesses, and that is the basic function of this film: to bear witness. Japanese officials complained that foreigners were not supposed to be there, that this was the "first time" (hardly) a war had taken place with neutral observers. "We did not want to be observed," they said.
But this is not, of course, meant as the attack on one nationality or an incitement to revenge. It's a story of madness in wartime and hence an indictment of war itself. And the film is also a moving account of the bravery of the few foreigners who saw the horrible events as a challenge to perform acts of extraordinary courage and goodness. The film is a heavy burden to take on, but it is not without hope, and proof of the ability of the Chinese to endure.
Typically I wait a day to two before writing a review on a film in
order to gain a deeper understanding and rationalization before
reacting. In the case of this film, I'll make an exception to this
I've studied genocide and violence at the university level and my awareness of the horrors that struck Nanking in Decemeber of 1937 are well beyond superficial. This film is an absolute must-view for those driven to bringer greater peace, justice, and truth to the world regardless of heritage.
Of course there will always be a swell of controversy among descendants of Japanese and Chinese heritage, which is an unquestionable shame, especially for those in the former group. The list of excuses, denials, and sophisticated cover-up I've often witnessed, firsthand, by many of my Japanese-American friends is disgusting. However, I am not interested in fueling a debate inspired by closeted nationalism, racial/ethnic pride, and partial history, the end results have so often led to circular frustration beyond comprehension. The evidence of the "Nanking Genocide (not massacre) is overwhelming and indisputable. These realities are clearly demonstrated throughout this emotionally paralyzing film. I would further declare that any person of Japanese lineage strong enough to view this film will undeniably depart with a shaken conscious.
Effectively, "Nanking" utilizes written, verbatim historical documentation, mostly from Western figures who were present during the swift and unforgettable tragedy of December 1937. People who thankfully recorded their experiences by pen and further confronted the horrors of the Japanese army with unbelievable courage. The pen is indeed mightier than the sword. Throughout this spirit-crushing reel, the historical dialogue is channeled via familiar Hollywood actors, and actual survivors of the genocide - all genuinely driven by objective, therapeutic, and moral-seeking resolve. While the dialogue strikes deep, archival footage is shown, a good deal of it pulled from Japanese sources - see end credits for reference. Also, without detail, you will be amazed at the number of ironies that unfold in "Nanking."
Tears built and inevitably rolled down my face many times throughout "Nanking" as I couldn't help but think of the numerous countries complicit in Nanking's spiral into hell, and the subsequent genocide's that have transpired since. One being Darfur, Sudan which continues at this very moment. Even more, the denial by people, especially with Japanese heritage, is just utterly perplexing and beyond tragic.
I'll refrain from further analysis and opinion only to suggest that you find courage in your moral capacity to spend roughly two hours of a day with a good friend or family member to see this film of monumental tragedy and courageous heroism. We cannot call ourselves human without facing the wickedness within. The soul requires to be wholly cleansed from time to time. Nanking has such effects/affects.
I imagine it's hard enough to make a compelling documentary with those
depicted being alive. That said, when those whose diaries are the basis
for said documentary have long since passed on it must be a minor
miracle if the project works in even a small way. Oh, yes add in that
few people cared at the time the actual events occurred, either by
ignorance or indifference, and that very same lack of interest still
exists today...So, why bother? Perhaps, because it has been said that a
society who fails to recognize its mistakes is doomed to repeat them.
If you believe in this simple premise then how can we not properly
acknowledge what the Japanese did, while the world watched, even this
many years later. Every generation needs to learn from our collective
history and I believe this movie is an important tool in that lesson.
More to the point of Nanking. It is not in any way meant to be any kind of definitive documentary of all events that were related to the Japanese destruction of Nanking and therefore should not be examined as such. It tells the story of the few, the foreigners, in a very narrow time period who were responsible for the preservation of at least a quarter of a million Chinese refugees who would have most certainly been massacred. It does this by a uniquely artistic device of using some living survivors interspersed with actors portraying those who are dead yet are able to tell their stories using wording right from their diaries. By understanding that the words are the actual words of these deceased people who saved lives against the fiercest evil more than validates this approach for this viewer.
I want to recommend this movie to those interested in the atrocities of war as it relates to history and who we are and should be. All civilized humanity should fight for justice and never sit idly by as evil goes about it's business unchecked. When we sit back and do nothing evil flourishes as history proved all to well in the next seven or eight years as more Japanese and Nazi atrocities mounted. This movie reminds us of that and as such is not a "hate letter" to any sect, but shows the human capacity for both evil and good. It's our mandate to make sure good wins and I find this documentary effectively states this. Important and timely, highly recommended.
This is a disturbing and fascinating film. It inter-cuts original
newsreel film and film made by witnesses to the atrocity,
face-to-camera reminiscence by some of the Chinese eyewitnesses,
interviews (apparently made some years ago) with surviving Japanese
soldiers who were involved in one part of the massacre, and a small
cast of mostly American actors reading excerpts from diary entries,
letters and other documents written by some of the 15 Europeans who
tried so valiantly to maintain the "safe zone" in the old town of
Nanking during the massacre.
As a history teacher, I have taught a little 20th century East Asian history. I knew of the Nanking massacre. I have read some of the documents used in the film and seen some of the still pictures. I hadn't seen any of the film before, though. It's very shocking stuff. That said, the most powerful and emotional moments of the film for me were the interviews. Especially the accounts of the old people, children at the time, who saw their family members killed or experienced rape.
Some of the comments I've read on the message boards here question whether this is a legitimate documentary. The Europeans (and some of the Chinese and one Japanese) are portrayed by actors. They do their job very well, but there is always a problem with dramatisation. How much can we trust the actors' interpretation of their lines? And how far has the editing gone? Then also, why choose just these people to represent the European community? Where were the Danish and British voices? Also, although they had tried to put themselves into character as prim missionary, grey businessman, reticent doctor, at least three of the actors were familiar faces to me, and in the beginning I found my thoughts wandering off the topic as I tried to identify them. (Mariel Hemingway, Jürgen Prochnow and Woody Harrelson.) Contrary to some of the voices on this message board, I don't think Nanking is anti-Japanese propaganda, or simply out to shock. I think the film makers are sincere when they say (through the words of their European witnesses) that the film does not set out to vilify the Japanese as a people. (Though I note that the Chinese witnesses uniformly refer to "Japanese devils" at least in the subtitling.) But isn't it often the case that a film made to condemn the atrocities of war is always likely to be interpreted differently depending on the prejudices the audience brings with them? If you already think the Japanese are devils, this film will confirm you in your belief. If you distrust Americans, you will find more fuel for your prejudice here. If you think all war is hell, you'll go away convinced that this film is a great contribution to the cause of pacifism.
I tend towards the latter. And I think I could use this film in class to teach history.
In 1937, the Japanese army invades China in a cruel war and after the
fall of Shanghai, the soldiers head to the capital Nanking. A group of
Western foreigners led by John Rabe, Minnie Vautrin, Bob Wilson and
George Fitch create the Safety Zone, a sanctuary that was not bombed by
the Japanese airplanes, to protect thousands of refugees. While the
Japanese soldiers reach the town on 13 December 1937, raping,
slaughtering and pillaging the civilian, the heroic group of Westerns
defends the lives of about 250,000 Chinese sacrificing their own
freedom, and succeeds to tell the world the crimes of war committed by
the Japanese army in Nanking.
The harrowing, heartbreaking and awesome "Nanking" retells the story of the genocide in Nanking in 1937 promoted by the Japanese army. In the late 90's I saw the also impressive and disturbing "Nanjing 1937" (a.k.a. "Don't Cry, Nanking") and I confess that was the first time I heard anything about this massacre. In the movie "Shake Hands with the Devil", the Canadian General Romeo Dellaire has a fantastic line when he says that "genocide is when there are cargo train, concentration camps, gas chambers". In Hollywood, usually genocide is associated to the Jews in World War II and there are dozens of excellent movies about this dark period of the contemporary history. "Nanking" uses letters and other documents written mainly by the group of Westerns that created the Safety Zone in touching and emotional lectures of great actors and actresses; disturbing and heartbreaking testimonies of survivors; a great number of footages, in a magnificent work of research; and the wonderful music score of Kronos Quartet. I immediately associated how traumatic might have been the lives of these survivors after witnessing such cruel crimes of war. Further, in Nanking there were Westerns observers that told the world part of what happened in the city; imagine in Shanghai and in the minor towns in the countryside on the way of the Japanese troops without foreign witnesses how violent these soldiers might have been with the population. These group of expatriated shows the difference that an individual can make. I was really disturbed and sad after watching this fantastic movie. My vote is nine.
Title (Brazil): Not Available
Note: On 24 May 2013 I saw this documentary again.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Though not a documentary as actors represent persons involved in the
Nanking crisis who are long dead, the story is told in credible
documentary fashion (only, sadly, are the performances lacking; they
are nearly uniformly wooden (Woody Harrelson's is a notable
The story of the rape of Nanking is so compelling that it sells itself; dialogue is practically unnecessary as the audience could get the same messages from a silent film. However, it is helped by superb archival film and photos, and an excellent script and timeline.
The Japanese are seen for what they were (or are, if you factor in the fact that today's Japanese government denies Nanking, the Korean 'comfort women', and other atrocities) and makes a viewer wonder if, all things considered, they got off too easy in 1945.
One of the film's most compelling moments was the true testimony of a surviving Japanese soldier who participated in the Nanking horrors. With laughter he admitted raping scores of Nanking women. Moreover it appears to be karma that the film is being shown in New York in 2007 just as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is dodging questions in Washington about Japan's conscription of Korean women for sexual slavery during WWII.
As a good filmmaker's message is never in doubt, a 'Nanking' viewer balancing ALL the Japanese atrocities (i.e., the collective miseries of other Chinese, the Koreans, and the Filipinos) against the post-1945 reality of Japan (extreme prosperity, peace, and the protection of the American government) and its lack of contrition, can't avoid the message of shocking injustice.
This film should be shown in any course -- anywhere -- dealing with WWII.
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