'Nanking' weeps over the dark occupation of China

The documentary is a profound reminder of the scale of Japan's early 20th-century massacre.

Courtesy of thinkfilm
Nanking: Over 20,000 Chinese took refuge in a safety zone set up by Westerners after the Japanese invasion.

The 1937-38 massacre of more than 200,000 Chinese in Nanking during the Japanese occupation has been extensively recorded in Iris Chang's best-selling "The Rape of Nanking," but there's nothing quite like seeing the documentary footage or hearing firsthand accounts from survivors.

"Nanking," directed by Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman, does justice to this tragedy even though it makes the mistake of mixing the testimony of actual participants with staged readings from actors subbing for real people. The actors include Mariel Hemingway as Minnie Vautrin, the head of a Christian missionary college, and Jürgen Prochnow as John Rabe, a German businessman with ties to the Nazis who tried to end the bloodshed. They are all quite good, but we are always aware that they are performing. The disparity between the slick, overproduced feel of these readings and the interviews with the survivors is jarring.

How could it be otherwise? When we hear Chang Zhi Qiang, who was 9 in 1937, talk about watching his mother being bayoneted to death while his severely injured baby brother looked on, we can barely look at him. His face is contorted with sorrow. Near the end of the movie, the filmmakers show us extremely graphic footage of atrocities shot by doctors in Nanking, and you marvel yet again at the depths to which human beings can sink.

You are also reminded of the heights that some people can attain in the face of abject horror. Of the many European and American expatriates who lived in the thriving Chinese capital, 22 remained behind during the occupation in order to provide a two-mile-wide safety zone within the city. About 200,000 civilians, some of them disguised Chinese soldiers, were given refuge inside the zone, including most of those giving testimony for the film.

We also hear from several Japanese soldiers who recount, rather matter-of-factly, their memories of the occupation. To this day, as "Nanking" documents, there are Japanese nationalists who deny the extent and savagery of the massacre. The survivors, for the most part, do not demonize the Japanese as a people for what was done to them, and that may be the only true note of uplift to be found in all this. Even in the face of depravity, they did not make the mistake of condemning an entire race. Grade: B+

Rated R for disturbing images and descriptions of wartime atrocities, including rape.

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