Wednesday, December 10, 2008

"Nanking" is a compelling documentary of a brutal early WWII incident in China


Nanking”, (web site here), directed by Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman, and released early at the end of last year by ThinkFilm with HBO Documentary) shows that one can make a compelling film about a tragic episode in relatively recent history by interviewing actors who stand in for people who were there, along with survivors speaking in their native tongue (Chinese) and interspersing with black and white footage (often quite clear) and newsreels. The incident is the “Rape of Nanking” at the end of 1937 by Japanese invaders, who sack Shanghai and then march to Nanking 180 miles to the Northeast. The westerners are played by Woody Harrelson (as Bob Wilson), Jurgen Prochnow (as John Rabe, who would be impoverished after the War), Stephen Dorff, John Getz, and others. The style of the film goes beyond Ken Burns (“The War”) and History Channel documentary (like Valkyrie) and keeps a compelling beat.

The westerners, at some risk, created and maintained a 2-mile-square “safe zone”. At one point, Nazi businessmen were actually supposed to “help” them. But the Japanese invaders swarmed in and looted the city with what seemed like genocide, with graphic war scenes and particularly of the civilian casualties, with gross brutality seeming to exceed the Holocaust. Some of the description is just verbal (as with the woman breastfeeding after being stabbed) but others are on smuggled 16 mm film with incredible disfigurement. Family relationships and Chinese filial piety were exploited.

In the beginning, the narrators actually say that life was good and prosperous; the average family had two bicycles. The music is compelling, played by the Kronos Quartet, with the Funeral March from Beethoven’s Eroica symphony played in the background of an early bombing raid.

I watched this film with Netflix "play" which required a long update to Windows Media Player, and a restart (which took a long time), with some complicated sciprts involving Digital Rights Management keys. This all took 25 minutes, but the film looked great online. The rental DVD was scratched and had the annoying previews in front.

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