A joint review of John Rabe (2009, Florian Gallenberger), City of Life and Death (2009, Chuan Lu) and Flowers of War (2011, Zhang Yimou)
I have long had a particular and I hope, not morbid, interest in that atrocity of the pre-WW II period, the 1937-38 atrocity that followed the Japanese conquest of the then Nationalist Chinese capitol city of Nanking and have addressed that interest in book reviews [19.7] and travel essays [33.5] in these pages. Like the Holocaust in Europe, committed by the Axis allies of the Japanese, that interest might owe to this sheer mind-stunning incredibility of such horrific inhumanity. Like the Holocaust, the rape of Nanking took its “justification” in a racism that demeaned and dehumanized its victims, and at its most base expression of human sadism, the joy of cruelty in its perpetrators. In my own attempts to “round” and “verify” these atrocities I have walked the streets of Nanking, and visited Dachau and Auschwitz, but there is always that residue of straining to believe how such horrors could have occurred.
The Holocaust of Europe remains well-documented and revisited in films and novels, but the Rape of Nanking has been less remembered in popular media until, it seems, be economic emergence of China in the past three decades has rekindled an interest in one of the ugliest chapters of the long history of that nation. I’ve treated parts of that in the essays linked herein, but the movies reviewed here are of recent origin, and are important because they are capable of reminding large audiences not only in China, but internationally.*
John Rabe is a German production with Ulrich Tukur in the title role of man who is sometimes referred to as the Oscar Schindler of Nanking. From the German point of view this film both somewhat rehabilitates, rather compensates, for the treatment that Rabe, a German businessman for Siemens in Nanking in the late 30s who was also a national Socialist who, when he repatriated was not well treated because he had contested with the Japanese occupiers of Nanking.** Rabe was involved in the setting up of the security zone in the city, and personally risked his life confronting Japanese authorities and sometimes drunken, raping, Japanese soldiers. He is credited in many sources with having saved the lives of thousands of Chinese civilians.
Of the 3 movies herin reviewed John Rabe as the lowest quotient of dealing with the horrific violence of the rape of Nanking. This is perhaps because it essentially deals with the internal concerns of the various nationalities––American, French, British, and others––in keeping the marauding Japanese at bay in their search for Chinese soldiers and women and girls to rape. In that there were some schools in the safety zone, among them Ginling College,***this added drama to the situation which is reflected in all three films.
The acting and directing of this film are of very high quality, and it might be that the inclusion of American actor Steve Buscemi speaking quite good Mandarin (although the movie employs English, German and Japanese as well) to garner some appeal to British and American audiences. But while there certainly is some violence depicted, the Japanese appear rather too tame in this film, and a scene in which girl students are required to strip in front if them in a search for a young soldier doesn’t seem to carry they sense of menace they exhibited toward Chinese women and girls.
Far closer to that menace, and in gripping documentary detail, is Chuan Lu’s City of Life and Death, which contains far less character detail. Lu’s city exhibits all of the devastation of war, and deliberately reenacts the numerous methods ruthless Japanese employed in their executions of captured Chinese soldiers, including a mass machine-gunning of perhaps thousands of them near the banks of the river, groups of them tied together and buried alive, others incinerated in buildings in which they were locked, hanging, sparing the viewer only the contests that Japanese officers engaged in by summary beheadings with their samurai swords by only showing decapitated heads dangling from wires. The scenes, in black-and-white, rival the first twenty minutes of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan.
Curiously, and apparently the received a lot of criticism for in China, the main character of this film is a Japanese soldier, Sgt. Kakodowa, who is uncomfortable with all the horror, although not moved (even if he could be) to act in ways contrary to his orders. This semi-humanizing of the enemy, might have been a slight softening in view of the fact that Chinese movie censors are always lurking, and the government does have concerns about offending its erstwhile enemy, but contemporary lucrative trading partner. But that is just speculation on my part; I can barely get a good table at a restaurant, much less entrée into the inner sanctums of Chinese media and politics.
City of Life and Death comes closest to visiting Nanjing’s commemorative museum, or leafing through the stomach turning photographs—many taken by the Japanese themselves—of the atrocities in process, or their aftermath in the catalogs on the subject. It is the film with the most authentic feel to it, and features only one rather unknown Western actor, in the role of John Rabe, almost no English dialogue, and so was most likely made for Chinese and Asian audiences. (Unfortunately, the English subtitles appear annoyingly about one line of dialogue behind the Mandarin being spoken.) Nevertheless, not much expense was spared in the realism brought to the battle scenes between the Chinese and Japanese soldiers, and subsequent atrocities.
Speaking of expense, The Flowers of War director Zhang Yimou, states in interviews attached to the DVD, that the twelve-acre set that was constructed for his film is part of the reason that it is the “most expensive film” to date made in China. In terms of its presentation of the Rape of Nanking, this film falls somewhere in between the others. Its production values are excellent (worth the expense) and Zhang is a director of considerable repute who eschewed the temptations of CGI for the sake of a visual authenticity worthy of the events portrayed.
But what lurks in the background is the nagging concern that The Flowers of War is a work of fiction (based on Yan Geling’s novel). With such glaring and gory reality the worry is that a roman a clef set on the Rape of Nanking might take things none small step in the direction of an eventual musical. The story is engaging and, in a counterintuitive way, heartwarming (?) For apps in a situation of chaos and anarchy, following an invasion by a vicious and unpredictable force, it is appropriate that a film set upon the circumstances does not have a single pivot. However in terms of cast, Christian Bale, as an American mortician––now there is an occupation for someone in a place about to have nearly a third of a million fatalities in a matter of weeks––called to prepare a deceased priest fence a school for young girls man who arrives coincident with the invading Japanese army of murderers and rapists. Initially, self-interested and self-preserving is gradually drawn into a situation of caring for their survival of the thirteen girls in school. Shortly thereafter, there arrives, unwelcome, but undeterred a like number of prostitutes fleeing their brothel down by the river. Although the gates are not opened for them, a scale the walls, enter the school church complex, but are relegated to its basement.
There is a risk of giving too much away here, but Bale dons the available priestly garb for his own survival and is soon being treated, as his behavior becomes more sympathetic and altruistic, and addressed by the students as “Father John.” The Japanese, are unaware of the presence other prostitutes in school, but are keenly aware of the thirteen pretty, young virgins, want them delivered to serve as “comfort women.”**** So now I might have connected too many dots, but not enough, I hope, to dissuade you from renting this well-acted movie, or being introduced to a lovely new Chinese actress named, unforgettably, Ni Ni.
But more importantly, should you one day find yourself, as I did, wandering the streets of Nanjing, you will be reminded of what inhumane horrors transpired in them to make that place a City of ghosts.
© 2012, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 12.21.2012)
*There have been a few films produced in China primarily for Chinese audiences that deal directly with the Rape of Nanking; but they have not had the production values that make them capable for international distribution, and have ended up in their availability on video CDs in video knockoff shops in Chinese cities.
**John E. Woods (trans), The Good Man of Nanking, Vintage, 2000 [this is a translation of the diaries of John Rabe]
***Another hero of the time is American Minnie Vautrin, who was dean of studies at Ginling College in Nanking in 1937. Hua-ling Hu, American Goddess at the Rape of Nanking, Southern Illinois U Press, 2000
****For a wrenching story of how the Japanese army secured such services see Therese Park’s A Gift of the Emperor (1997) about a Korean girl abducted and forced to be a sex slave (“comfort woman”).