This review was written for the festival screening of "Nanking."
PARK CITY -- Barely remembered in the West, the rape of Nanking -- then the capital of China -- by the Japanese imperial forces in 1937 stands as a gruesome testimonial to man's inhumanity to man. Conceptualized by AOL co-chairman Ted Leonsis and directed by Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman, "Nanking" is a vivid account of those terrible events. The beautifully crafted film could generate some interest in theaters before finding its natural home on a high-profile cable outlet.
Having already annexed Manchuria, Japan started its full-scale attack on the Chinese mainland in summer 1937 with extensive air raids on Shanghai and Nanking. Chinese citizens who had money and most foreigners had fled Nanking before the ground troops arrived that December. All that was left behind were the poor and a group of 22 European and American clergy, businessmen, doctors and teachers. In an attempt to save as many lives as possible, the foreign contingent set up a safety zone for the Chinese.
Guttentag and Sturman give the events great immediacy by staging a reading of the diaries, letters and other accounts of the invasion written by the expats. Recited by actors including Mariel Hemingway, Woody Harrelson and Stephen Dorff on a soundstage, the material serves as the narration for much of the film.
It's not a pretty picture as the army rolls into the once vibrant and now almost deserted city. As one of the diaries explains and the images confirm, "Each day is worse than the one before," and another says, "I can see little sign of God." Particularly fascinating is the account of a German businessman, John Rabe -- movingly read by Jurgen Prochnow -- who was a Nazi sympathizer but nonetheless does the right thing.
Survivors of the event, both Chinese and Japanese, also are interviewed on-camera and offer stories almost too horrific to be believed. Gasoline was thrown on men who were then set on fire. Chinese men were forced to have sex with dead women while the soldiers watched.
One elderly Chinese man who was there breaks down sobbing when he recalls his mother being slaughtered with a bayonet as she breast-fed his baby brother. A woman cries as she recounts how her young daughter was taken away from her, then raped and killed. A Japanese soldier recalls, "In the dark of night, we shot them in the back with machine guns."
In all, 200,000 Chinese were killed and an estimated 20,000 women ages 12-60 were raped. But 250,000 were saved by the bravery of the foreigners in the safety zone.
Indelible footage of looting, rapes and mass killing has been collected from archives in Europe, America and Asia and stitched together seamlessly by editors Hibah Frisina, Charlton McMillan and Michael Schweitzer, who won the docu editing award Sunday at Sundance. Some of the most chilling images come from home movies shot by a minister and smuggled out of the country in the coat lining of another safety zone foreigner. Philip Marshall has composed an understated Chinese-sounding score evocatively played by the Kronos Quartet.
Not only is the film a powerful historical record and a warning for future generations, it is an essential reminder to people, including many in Japan today, who might deny that this massacre ever occurred. As such, "Nanking" honors the highest calling of documentary filmmaking.
A Ted Leonsis production
Directors: Bill Guttentag, Dan Sturman
Screenwriters: Bill Guttentag, Dan Sturman, Elizabeth Bentley
Producers: Ted Leonsis, Bill Guttentag, Michael Jacobs
Director of photography: Buddy Squires
Music: Philip Marshall
Editors: Hibah Frisina, Charlton McMillan, Michael Schweitzer
Running time -- 91 minutes