Nanking - published review

Discussion in 'Books and Films' started by Antipodean Andy, Mar 24, 2008.

  1. Antipodean Andy

    Antipodean Andy New Member

    Worcester Telegram & Gazette News

    Search whatever film archive you want, but you will not find a sadder, more devastating story told on camera than that of the elderly Chinese gentleman in “Nanking” who tearfully recalls the sight of his mother, bayoneted multiple times by a Japanese soldier, trying to breastfeed his youngest brother, the blood and milk mingling as the life runs out of her. The scene is an ungodly mix of the sacred and the profane.

    Seventy years later, the memory still staggers him. But the man obviously is compelled to speak, perhaps out of fear that if he doesn’t, the truth about the “Rape of Nanking” will be lost.

    Documentary filmmakers Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman do their level best to ensure that never happens. Using testimony from survivors and excerpts from the journals of Westerners who were living in the Chinese city when the Japanese military attacked on Dec. 13, 1937, the film offers both a brutal depiction of the systematic extermination and rape of tens of thousands of civilians and a tribute to the bravery of those who tried to prevent it.

    The journal dispatches are read by contemporary actors who recount in stark detail the horrors exacted on the city’s dwellers by the Japanese. Several of the Westerners, like Minnie Vautrin (voiced by Mariel Hemingway), the dean of a women’s college; Dr. Bob Wilson (Woody Harrelson), an American surgeon, and German businessman John Rabe (Jurgen Prochnow) carved out a so-called Safety Zone in the middle of Nanking where refugees hid from the marauding soldiers and had their wounds treated by a skeleton staff of doctors and nurses.

    Their efforts to protect the city’s poor (the wealthy had the means to flee before the invasion) were brazen, shrewd and jaw-droppingly heroic. The crusty Rabe was especially defiant, challenging the Japanese, often with a bayonet pointed at his chest or a gun barrel nudging his temple. His resolve to follow his moral compass conjures up Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist who would save hundreds of Jews at the height of World War II.

    Guttentag and Sturman employ newsreels from the time, and even 16mm film shot secretly by a Western missionary and smuggled out of Nanking. Some of that footage depicts horrific Japanese atrocities committed against the Chinese — footage we later learn that did little to stir action, from the U.S. or any other nation, on behalf of Nanking.

    The film’s most unsettling images are taped interviews with former Japanese soldiers (apparently gathered from other news sources), who dispassionately recall the mass murder of as many as 20,000 Chinese in a single day. One former grunt describes — again, with remarkable equanimity — how he and his comrades typically conducted their rapes. Contrast his testimony with that of an elderly Chinese woman who recounts her assault at the age of 12 while her grandfather pleaded with the soldier to spare her.

    Estimates for the number of Chinese killed at Nanking over the course of six weeks differ, but the figure ranges from 200,000 to 300,000 victims. “Nanking’s” makers can’t begin to tell all their stories, but the handful they’ve chosen bear witness to the many.

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