**½/**** Image A Sound A
directed by Bill Guttentag & Dan Sturman
by Alex Jackson Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman's 90-minute documentary on the 1937 Nanking Massacre isn't so much reductive or simplistic as it is overachieving. The film suggests several promising avenues of discussion but stops there, at the level of overview, leaving you frustrated and hungry. As I felt similarly unsatisfied by the Ken Burns mini-series The Civil War, it occurs to me that the problem is one not of brevity but of excess ambition. With several hours at his disposal, Burns tried and failed to meet the likely-futile goal of creating the definitive document of the American Civil War. Even allowing for the decrease in scale, Guttentag and Sturman shouldn't have expected to sum up the entirety of the Nanking Massacre in a scant hour-and-a-half. By trying to tell us everything about the Nanking Massacre, Nanking ultimately tells us very little.
You'd think that Iris Chang's The Rape of Nanking, arguably the most popular work dealing with this subject, would suffer from similar deficiencies, but Chang earns a lot of points with me for examining the side of the Japanese. She helps clarify what China meant to Japan and how and why these soldiers did what they did. In her remarkably empathetic account, she demonstrates how nationalist zealotry combined with institutionalized child abuse to produce an army of serial killers. Chang's sense of pity for these rapists and murderers provocatively embarrasses those of us seeking our pound of flesh. Nanking is comparatively less challenging. While lip service is paid to not hating the Japanese people as a whole, and while Guttentag and Sturman boldly choose to include interviews with still-living Japanese involved in the raping and killing, I never felt I was being cued to do anything other than sneer and cluck my tongue.
One former soldier declares that civilians were raped largely out of boredom. He says that it's "no good" if both people aren't willing. Is he confessing to wrongdoing and regret, or does he mean that he didn't find rape to be sexually satisfying? Guttentag and Sturman aren't terribly interested in drawing the distinction. I should clarify that Nanking only hears from a few soldiers and this might not entirely be the fault of the documentarians. No doubt the Chinese victims were more forthcoming than their Japanese tormentors: not only is guilt intrinsically harder to admit than victimhood--the Japanese have been notoriously evasive in taking responsibility for the massacre and many hardcore nationalists continue to deny that it ever happened. Still, there's a stinging, dismissive quality to these interviews with the Japanese. They simply don't carry as much weight as those with the survivors or the white foreign witnesses to the event. As a result, the film passively dehumanizes the Japanese as mere monsters.
There's a reference near the end of the piece to the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo, explaining that Mukai Toshiaki and Noda Takeshi--two men who participated in a very public beheading contest during the massacre--are among the names honoured. Li Ying's 2007 documentary about the shrine, Yasukuni, is the perfect illustration of how Nanking briskly skips over the ambiguities in the details. You're not getting the whole story. Ying had precisely the right idea: rather than take on the entire Nanking Massacre, he narrowed his focus to a single aspect of it. Ying, for what it's worth, viewed the shrine as genuinely controversial, an issue with two sides. It appears that one must either accept the shrine as is or reject it whole-cloth. The criteria for inclusion on the shrine is incredibly broad--one must simply have died fighting on behalf of the Emperor of Japan, and to be more selective within that is to venture onto a slippery slope. So in accepting the shrine, one must honour Toshiaki and Takeshi; and in rejecting it, one must dishonour everyone else listed. This view of Japanese militarism is decidedly more sophisticated than anything found in Nanking.
One of the especially intriguing things about Yasukuni is its anti-nostalgia. Set in the present day and dealing with what is finally a contemporary issue, it contextualizes the Nanking Massacre and the whole of World War II as a seventy-year-old event. (This subtly turns the Japanese neo-militarists' obsession with resurrecting the dead past into a pathetic form of necrophilia.) Nanking is not at all anti-nostalgic. It is, indeed, quite nostalgic. I don't mean that it makes the Nanking Massacre look like something fun to relive, but it has a vibrant pop sheen that renders the material palatable and exciting. The film is further confirmation that Paul Verhoeven's Black Book and Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List have become the dominant models for films about World War II. The war is now as fantastic a background as Oz or Middle-Earth. There is little sense that what we're seeing happened to actual people inhabiting actual environments; we are constantly aware that we're watching a movie. Accordingly, there is no banality in the evil of the Nanking Massacre here. Nanking again depicts pure evil, transforming the Japanese into horror-movie bogeys like Freddy Krueger or Leatherface.
Principal to developing this filmic artificiality are impersonations of key white occupants of Nanking by professional actors. Woody Harrelson is American surgeon Bob Wilson, Jürgen Prochnow is German businessman John Rabe, Stephen Dorff is American missionary/sociology professor Lewis Smythe, and Mariel Hemingway is fellow missionary/women's college dean Minnie Vautrin. The actors read their characters' diary entries and letters aloud to the camera, presumably to give the impression that they're interviewees alongside the Chinese and Japanese. Although Harrelson is predictably distracting and out of place, Prochnow is convincing enough--provided you haven't seen any of his movies lately. S.F.W. alum Dorff puts a nice spin on Smythe by turning him into an angry campus radical. It's forgivably anachronistic because it unifies Dorff's persona and that of Smythe with success.
Yet Hemingway is the clear standout. Hers is a truly felt performance, locating the warmth and naïve condescension in Vautrin's maternal pose. In an attempt to gain our sympathy and depict the horrors of war, she describes how she was unable to get the odour of decayed flesh off of her skin no matter what she tried. In portraying the animalism of the Japanese, she tells us that when they could not find teenage girls to rape, they turned to teenage boys. Her church-ladyisms add some healthy human ambiguity and colour to the woman historian Hua-ling Hu termed "The American Goddess at the Rape of Nanking." We feel that we can understand her.
Many of the missionaries, Vautrin in particular, find their faith challenged by the Massacre. The problem isn't exactly that a loving and omnipotent God would permit such evil--it's that Christianity seems inadequate in fighting it. However unwise and contrary to the pacifist principles of Christian ethics, killing the bastards would at least relieve the guilt of inaction. (Vautrin was left so distraught by the horrors she saw and her powerlessness in preventing them that years later she committed suicide by gas stove.) Though dealing with these perennial theological questions wouldn't be a bad direction for the film to go, it would involve turning this Chinese tragedy into a spiritual crisis for white intellectuals. And that is a trade-off Nanking is unwilling to make.
Along those lines, the John Rabe story is easily the most conventional route into the Nanking Massacre, but it's not without interest. Unlike war profiteer Oskar Schindler, Rabe was a true believer in Nazi Germany. When the city was bombed, he set up a dugout for himself and his Chinese employees and draped a canvas with a swastika painted on it over his garden, presumably so the Japanese would pass right over it. Later, Rabe naively wrote a letter to Adolf Hitler asking for his aid in protecting Nanking. His sense of humanity was evidently emboldened by his Nazi ties as opposed to independent from them. By believing he had that kind of political power behind him, Rabe felt he had a greater ability to save lives. This is a fascinating idea that fruitfully exploits and re-contextualizes our attitudes towards Nazism. Alas, Nanking doesn't explore it. (It's worth noting that the filmmakers don't really establish the Chinese perspective on the Massacre, either, beyond recording the accounts of survivors.)
Some viewers may feel that Nanking trivializes the Nanking Massacre by translating it into slick, Hollywood terms. This is not my attitude, per se. First of all, I don't believe that The Movies (by which I mean slick Hollywood movies) are intrinsically trivial. The victims of the Nanking Massacre are respected by Guttentag and Sturman and retain their dignity. This is an entertaining film but it is not an exploitive one. Secondly, I think we need a cinema of nerves instead of simply good intentions. More people are going to get more out of Nanking than they are likely to get out of Yasukuni. Nanking is compulsively watchable whereas Yasukuni, although the better film, is much more of an endurance test. Nanking is a visceral experience and one needn't feel any guilt for preferring it. It's just a far cry from being the last word on the subject. If Nanking is good enough to hook you, it's not going to sustain your curiosity afterwards. Think of it as "Nanking for Dummies."
Despite having a mixed reaction to Nanking itself, I have few complaints with TH!NKFilm's DVD release. The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is crisp and free of defect. On a side note, the excerpted archival footage is in surprisingly excellent condition--at times, it seems to have been scrubbed up so well that it nearly blends in with the material generated by the filmmakers themselves. The soundtrack is in both Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0, and there is a good balance between music and dialogue; the rear channels are utilized to wonderful effect in evoking the aerial bombings. Forced trailers for Taxi to the Dark Side, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, War/Dance, and In the Shadow of the Moon as well as an optional one for Nanking round out the disc.