If you’ve been browsing the DVD shops lately, you might have already come across Nanking, a documentary—of sorts—about the Nanjing massacre of 1937. The film consists of three elements: first-person accounts from survivors and eye witnesses, including Chinese civilians and soldiers as well as Japanese soldiers. These are all real people, telling their stories on film. Then there actors portraying some of the people, mostly Europeans and Americans, that played a role in setting up a safe-zone for civilians and thereby saving thousands of lives. Among these was the famous John Rabe, a German and Nazi known as “The Good Nazi” or even China’s Oskar Schindler (read the write up from Howard French of the New York Times on the restoration of Rabe’s house and Sino-Japanese relations here and a general write up about him from The Independent here). There was also an American doctor named Bob Wilson, who was played by Woody Harrelson, as well as other roles played by Mariel Hemingway and Stephen Dorff.
It seems that most of the critics on Rotten Tomatoes thought the film was decent, at least in the sense that it’s hard to really fuck up something about atrocities, especially if you believe, as we do, that the general facticity of events is not to be doubted. There are a lot of people out there who are happy to debate those things, but let them get sucked into the cesspool of denials and counter-denials, we just wanted to see what the movie had to say. For those of you that read Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking, there’s nothing you didn’t already know. Our first exposure to this episode in history was through that book, and we think that no matter how many different takes and testimonies we see, nothing will hit us as hard as that book did, and hit us hard as it did. We had to put it down various times out of shock, awe, and the sheer inability to digest the horror of what was happening exactly 70 years ago. In fact, this film was dedicated to Iris Chang.
If we had to say anything about the film, it would be that it was okay. The foreigners are good, the Japanese are evil, and the Chinese were mostly helpless and innocent. Once that’s been established, the rest of the film follows. Don’t get us wrong, we’re not trying to dispute the validity of that, but maybe we’re just used to or more keen on watching films where there is a bit more moral complexity. It sounds daft to say that about a historical event of this magnitude, but we’re not talking about history per se, but rather how we perceive and consume this history through a particular medium and through a particular instance of that medium, i.e., this film. All in all, the film was okay, worth a watch, especially as a primer for the uninitiated.
There are a few more Nanjing massacre films in the works, read about them here.
On an almost unrelated note, read some of the inane statements about China made by Mrs. Rupert Murdoch at the New York premiere of Nanking.