As I placed Nanking into my DVD player last Thursday, I was expecting to watch a Woody Harrelson drama about something or another. Apparently, I had never watched the previews or read a plot synopsis, as I had no clue that the movie was actually a documentary about one of the worst massacres of World War II, the Rape of Nanking, China.
Nanking, written and directed by Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman, is a rather unique documentary in that it combines historical footage, real interviews and additional interviews reenacted by such Hollywood actors as Stephen Dorff, Mariel Hemmingway, Jürgen Prochnow and Harrelson. The result is ultimately effective, though one has to wonder if the film would have been more impactful without the celebrity inclusion.
The movie thrives on the fact that the Rape of Nanking is a disturbing, shockingly brutal and controversial moment in history. I'd never heard of this "incident" before, but I will never forget it now. Nanking, a city in China, was invaded in the early days of World War II and occupied by the Japanese. While most foreigners fled, a few stayed behind and were witness to one of the worst atrocities ever committed. According to Wikipedia, between 200,000 and 350,000 Chinese were estimated killed; many women and children were raped, many more their bodies mutilated. Basically, it was an extremely savage time for the Japanese military, so much so that apparently many refuse to admit that anything even happened.
Guttentag and Sturman do an excellent job of depicting the atrocities. The historical footage is disturbing - there are plenty of shots of dead, dying or tortured people. One man, who was stabbed and lit on fire, has most of his skin burned away. The most shocking moment, for me, is the footage of a woman who was halfway decapitated by Japanese soldiers. Yes, halfway decapitated. In that she was still alive and functioning, even though her neck was half-missing. Combine that footage with first-hand interviews of civilians talking about how they witnessed their friends, parents and children raped and/or murdered time and time again, and you have one powerful story.
Still, I can't get over the fact that Guttentag and Sturman employ recognizable actors for some of the other interviews. Ultimately, the actors do fine, and I can imagine the directors used them to draw more attention to their film. For a documentary, though, I'm not a big fan of mixing staged and real-life footage, especially when there is direct access to enough firsthand interviews.
While I don't agree with the way the directors assembled their film, Nanking is still a riveting documentary that captures the attention and offers a disturbing glimpse at one of the most tragic stories of the 20th century.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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