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Nanking '37 at Seattle '07 Shocking reconstruction of the rape of a city

Directed in tandem by Bill Gutenburg and Dan Sturman, "NANKING" (USA 2007, RT, 91 minutes, in Mandarin, English and Japanese) is a startling and shocking reconstruction of a gigantic atrocity perpetrated by the Japanese army in China nearly 70 years ago, but presented in part by leading actors as if it were taking place today. The result, graphically depicting the sack and destruction of the city along with the indiscriminate bestial massacre of just about the entire civilian population, is a painful (but fascinating) reminder of the unspeakable brutality of the Japanese even before the official outbreak of WW II, and leaves the viewer in gaping jaw-drop incredulous awe for long minutes even after the final credits have rolled. (If Clint Eastwood saw this he might not have made "Letters from Iwojima")

When the Japs invaded China in 1937 the first target was Shanghai, which was quickly captured. Next in line was Nanking, then the capital of th Chinese republic and a handsome tree-lined city with a significant population of long-term foreign (i.e., Western) residents. The film opens with old footage of idyllic, peaceful family scenes in the Capital of The South (Nan-King means "South-Capital") just prior to the vicious bombing and overland attack that would go down in infamy as "The Rape of Nanking" , leaving scars which have still not healed completely between China and Japan.
Among the foreign residents was a heroic American woman, Minnie Vutrain, portrayed intently in the film by Mariel Hemingway, Dr. Bob wilson, a dedicated American physician -- played remarkably in the film by a nearly unrecognizable Woody Harrelson -- and a humane German (hence, "Nazi" by
definition) political attache, Herr Johann Rabe, played most meaningfully by German actor Jurgen Prochnow (Das Boot). These three people used their politically neutral positions to save as many people as they could while placing themselves in mortal jeopardy. The rich people of the city fled immediately. The poor masses, having no place to go, stayed behind and were slaughtered indiscriminately in the streets and in their homes. The three westerners, one a German, banded together and established a small "safety zone" where hundreds of people were saved, although the Japanese eventually entered to drag out suspected Chinese soldiers in hiding, excuting them en masse before the horrified eyes of their saviours.

The body of the film is based on letters and diaries these three unsung humanitarian heroes left behind, as read or reconstructed by the actors mentioned. Photos of the original people juxtaposed with the actors made up to portray them bear striking resemlances in the case of the males, and a strong spiritual resonance in the case of Ms. Hemingway. As the story unfolds you just accept them completely -- a master stroke, it seems to me, of docu-drama direction.

In addition actual Chinese survivors of the Nipponese Hell-on-Earth graphically recount their own experiences in Mandarin Chinese. One man, telling of how his bayoneted mother breast-fed his baby brother as blood gushed from wounds in her breast, finally breaks down -- but only momentarily. This man wants you to get the picture, and he doesn't want it blurred out by tears. The picture he paints of people cut to pieces all around him (he was ten at the time) is so grrr-aphic that you forget he's speaking Chinese -- his words register on such a gut level. Other first-person accounts by now elderly Chinese men and women are equally grim, but equally level-headed, which makes them all the more effective. Women telling of multiple rapings, of a ten year old girl ravished then cut literally in half by a samurai sword, etc. A favored form of Japanese massacre was bayonet practice on victims tied to stakes and tying people together, dousing them in kerosine, then burning them alive. Charred remains of such gruesome bestiality are graphically shown on archival footage -- ugh
-- the kind of stuff that makes one wonder whether only two atomic bombs were enough ...

A nearly surrealistic touch is the first person testimony of former Japanese soldiers, now senior citizens in Japan, recounting, matter-of-factly, with no apparent remorse or agonizing, how -- yes, they took part in the rape, savagery, bayonetings and plunder, way back then ...(ahem-ahem). After being repatriated to America Ms. Vutrain suffered a nervous breakdown and committed suicide. Rabe returned to Nazi Germany, where he was arrested by the Gestapo and released under condition never to mention Nanking. Wilson returned to the States so horrified by what he had seen that he was unable to continue the practice of Medicine.

While this film is horrifying it is also ironclad coherent, historically accurate, and even esthetically satisfying -- a major document and a frontal reminder of the horrors of war, then and today. After the war a number of Commanders of the Rape of Nanking were tried at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal (1947) and executed. Others were, however, released, and all 24 are buried in Tokyo's Yasukuni Jinja, a national shrine to the Japanese war dead. The fact that the Japanese prime minister makes an annual, highly publicized, vist to this shrine, enshrining among others the Rapers of Nanking, is a very sore point with the Chinese to this very day, who continually call for a stop to the public worship of war Criminals in Japan.
The Japanese, even today, have their own way of thinking. The film ends, tellingly, at Yasukuni Jinja, Tokyo.

At this point I cannot resist quoting the following excerpt from one Sundance festival reviewer of "Nanking":
<< 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 >>-- This writer roundly seconds that motion!

Another film with a much softer China connection was the world's premiere of local Seattle filmmaker John Helde, "Made in China" (70 minutes). This is a personal documentary in which Helde travels to present day China in order to trace his father's experience as an American lad growing up in the China of the thirties, and discovers a community of other Americans (all of Christian missionary families) who had similar childhoods -- raised in China, then transplanted to an unfamiliar america. All but one (a woman living in
California) feel like exiles in their own country, never completely at home even after alkl these years. One white-haired lady recalls how other schoolchildren here ridiculed her with erpithets such as "Ching-chong Chinaman", although these kids had never seen a Chinese in person. Now in their twilight years these long-ago China expatriates return to the fondly remembered places where they grew up, notably, Changsha and Chengdu in western Sze-Chuan Province. They can still speak Chinese but the landscape of their childhood is all but gone. One lady on the teeming streets of modern Changsha exclaims; "It's all so different, and I don't WANT it to be
different!" A poignant film re-emphasizing the Wolfian theme "You can't go
home again" -- especially if it's seventy years later and the home in question was pre-war China.

One more hard-hitting political documentary is "Soldiers of Conscience", directed in tandem by his-'n-her team Gary Weimberg and Ruth Ryan of Berkeley, here at the festival to field audience response. This is a film focusing on Iraq War conscientious objectors within the military, who at some point of personal moral crisis, laid down their arms and/or deserted.
"Their country asked them to kill. Their consciences told them to stop".
While this consists mostly of interviews with the objectors and their obvious anti-war message, the filmmakers are savvy enough to include statements by non-objectors who regard some killing as necessary "to defend our democratic institutions" and others who as professional soldiers by choice, basically abide by the Tennson formula, "Theirs not to question
(Bush) why -- theirs but to do and die". An unusually chilling moment in the film is reached when a young Christian American interrogator of often tortured Islamic POWs has a profound moment of Truth laid on him by a battle-hardened interogee, who questions the foundations of his Christian beliefs ("did you turn the other cheek?") and coldly tells him "My faith in Allah is far greater than your belief in Jesus. Yes, I would kill you if I could, but my faith is so unshakable that I'm prepared to stay here the rest of my life!" The interrogator became a CO with such unshakable faith confronting us it makes you wonder how long it will be before Broadway is renamed "Bin Laden Boulevard".

In spite of the clear anti-war content of the film, it was made with US Army approval, and the Army even allowed the filming of basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C. where young men are turned into battlefield killers. An indication that there ia lot there to think about, for, as the director told us, the question of 'To kill or not to kill' -- and, 'In the name of what?'
-- is a question on the mind of nearly every soldier in Iraq. The film, whose production values are, incidentally, first class, has also been shown at West Point where it was favorably received. Weimberg and Ryan have been making social justice and commercial documentaries for over 20 years and the professionalism shows. "Soldiers of Conscience" could well become a lethal weapon in the anti-war arsenal if only it is widely seen, and not just by audiences where it would merely be preaching to the committed (as, e.g., here in Seattle). This is precisely the appeal Weimberg made to the SIFF McCaw Hall gathering; "We need help. Tell your friends about it"-- Okay Gary
-- I will.
Alex Deleon for filmfestivals.com

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