February 1, 2008

REVIEW: Nanking (A)

Background: Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman won an Oscar for their documentary short Twin Towers several years ago, and they've partnered again for Nanking, a documentary feature about the occupation of Nanking, China, by Japanese troops 70 years ago last month. Featuring survivors of the massacre as well as famous Hollywood actors (yeah, it takes a minute to get used to it), Nanking is a new style of documentary, at least new to me. Aside from the survivor interviews, all of the actors' dialogue is taken from actual diaries and notes. Though short-listed for an Oscar nomination, Nanking was ultimately passed over in favor of more contemporary subjects.

Synopsis: After storming through Shanghai in late 1937, Japanese troops (allied with the Nazis) set a course for Nanking, the capital of China at the time. After the initial bombing raids killed or scattered the majority of the population, troops moved in to essentially exterminate whoever was left. A group of foreigners living in the capital, led by German John Rabe (Jürgen Prochnow) and Americans Bob Wilson (Woody Harrelson) and Minnie Vautrin (Muriel Hemingway), set up an unofficial "safety zone" in hopes of appealing to what was left of the Japanese military's humanity. Though they ended up saving the lives of almost 250,000 civilians over the six week occupation, the Japanese troops still executed almost 200,000 people, primarily by bayonet and rifle shot. We hear from actual survivors and former Japanese soldiers about the horrific crimes that were committed, complemented by extremely graphic images.

I Loved:
+ I absolutely did not "love" it, but one interview in particular was shockingly awful. It's why the film was made. I don't remember the gentleman's name, but he describes his mother being murdered while holding his baby brother. One of the most tragically heartbreaking, utterly sickening stories you will ever hear. Ever.

I Liked:
+ The use of archival footage and actual survivor and soldier testimonies.

I Disliked:
- The opening shots of the actors congregating and then abruptly starting their read-throughs.
- Some of the repetitiveness - I guess I could have used more info about what the rest of the world (especially Japan) knew about what was going on.

I Hated:
- Jürgen Prochnow as John Rabe. He was so obviously, awkwardly reading his lines, maybe for the first time.
- The unbelievable interviews with Japanese soldiers who were in Nanking. Was I misunderstanding that they were not showing any remorse?

Writing - N/A
Acting - 8
Production - 9
Emotional Impact - 10
Music - 5
Significance - 5

Total: 37/40= 93% = A

Last Word: The irony. Is staggering. To take nothing away from the victims in Nanking, it struck me toward the end of the film that an eerily similar situation is currently happening, also involving China but taking place in Sudan. If you don't know by now, you'll know by the Summer Olympics that China is essentially underwriting the genocide in Darfur. That fact only makes Nanking more troubling than it already is. As a documentary, it certainly informs and horrifies, and its ambition in using actors actually works to some extent, as awkward as they are. The archival footage is incredible - I'm ever amazed at how such pictures and video were taken at that time. The interviews are compelling, but somewhat lacking in volume. What I'm saying in all of this is that I found myself wanting a more traditional record of the story; it didn't need to be artsied up with actors. Nevertheless, Nanking is an extremely important tool for educating all of us about the true depths of human wickedness.


  1. I gots to get to the Lagoon. Then I'll read your review in detail. (I'm a spoilerphobe).

  2. Yeah, me too. Definitely avoid any review I write until after you've seen the movie!

  3. Nice review Daniel. I wasn't sure how this would be based on the trailer, but the subject is interesting.

    Yet another documentary that has slipped under my radar. I keep promising myself I'm going to focus on documentaries more, but then...

  4. Thanks, Craig. It's an interesting experiment for a documentary - I wonder if they'll start doing it more often, though generally the subject doesn't lend itself well. I don't think I want to see Brad Pitt being interviewed as Galileo or something.

    You've already seen my 2007 documentary list - I recommend those, especially The King of Kong, if you're looking for some great recent docs. I know people can get turned off by the silliness of a Sicko or the potential boredom of a March of the Penguins, but there are some pretty interesting non-fiction stories out there that are being told really well.


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