Review of Nanking

Review of Nanking directed by Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman
Rating **** 1/2

Nanking is the true story of what happened in 1937 when the Japanese invaded China. If anyone ever questioned the need for a strong military, they only need to watch this film.

This is a story about what happens when a group of people, in this case unsupervised Japanese soldiers, are given absolute power over a less fortunate group of people. The end result is mass murder, rape, and uncontrolled looting. You would have thought that this kind of thing was relegated to the seventeenth century and earlier. But we've seen it time and again in places like Rwanda, Darfur, and Yugoslavia. Though I'm not sure that even those examples can compare to what happened in Nanking, mostly because of the swiftness with which it happened. In a time span of just two weeks the Japanese murdered an estimated 250,000 people and committed an estimated 20,000 rapes.

Nanking was the capital city of China in 1937. The city was first subjected to weeks of relentless bombings. Those who had the resources fled to the countryside. Those left behind would face a living hell. As the Japanese ground soldiers advanced on the city with little or no resistance, they murdered indiscriminately. After reaching Nanking they settled in and really got serious with the killings and rapes.

The story is told from various viewpoints including some of the actual Japanese soldiers who participated in the atrocities. More on that later. The primary story involves a group of westerners who tried to create a safety zone for refugees. Their efforts were only partially successful. While they saved countless lives, the Japanese soldiers showed little respect for the safety zone and repeatedly entered the zone to snatch suspected Chinese soldiers. Since they couldn't determine who were soldiers and who wasn't, they basically gathered up everyone who was male and the right age. They them summarily executed them.

Much of the story is told by actors who read letters written by people who were there. I've never seen this done before, but it works exceptionally well. A mix of archival footage, images, interviews, and reenactments balance out the rest of the film.

There is no excuse that the Japanese can give to explain what happened in Nanking. The sad part about it is when the filmmakers interviewed some of the soldiers who participated in the killings and rapes, they didn't seem the least bit bothered by what they had done. They displayed the same lack of compassion and morals that led to the killings. If it's any consolation, none of them looked like they were living a life of luxury.

The Japanese people today bare no responsibility for what happened anymore than the German people today bare responsibility for what the Nazis did in the concentration camps. But we all need to watch films like this in order to not let it happen again.

This was an HBO film. The DVD had no extras.

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