Not What You’d Expect – Nanking

Nanking. Nanking, Nanking, Nanking. Not quite a subject overkilled, not quite the topic overtalked, but certainly, as a movie I seem to recall quite a number of recent films that has taken a look at Nanking. What is Nanking? It is a place in China, but it’s one of those places that can’t be mentioned without evoking a sense of dread, perhaps a feeling that you should know more about a place than its mere name. Like…Auschwitz. Or…Somme. These are the places etched in history for reasons that reflects upon the brutality of mankind to inflict on its own kind. Nanking is such a place.

In my class, I have a tendency to show Christopher Nolan’s ‘Doodlebug’. It is his second short film, and only the missing piece of the jigsaw that is the first would have completed my watching of his entire filmography. I am a big fan, and even in his short film, it is clear that he is a director with strong ideas heading places. “Has anyone heard of ‘Doodlebug’?” No one would answer verbally, mere shakes of the head being enough of a response. “Has anyone heard of Christopher Nolan?” The response to this is infinitely more enthusiastic; no one mildly interested in film and in their right mind would not know who he is. As far as I am concerned, he is a film god.

Overstating it? Perhaps, but that’s how much I respect and look up to him. In ‘Doodlebug’, we see a man in fear of something in his flat, running around trying to hit a small figure that turns out to be himself. He hits it, before an even bigger him comes into the big and hits him in return. The story itself is never explicitly clear, so to speak, but I’ve always read it as a tale of how mankind is its own worst enemy. The link? In ‘Nanking’, the documentary, we shall see how mankind is not just his own enemy, but capable of much more than that, both good and bad.

‘Nanking’, as written above, is a documentary that looks at how the Nanking massacre of the Second World War unfolded. The Japanese troop had by then moved into the mainland. and taken over Nanking, which used to be the capital of China. During their time there, they killed, murdered, raped and pillaged to their hearts content. In the middle of all this mayhem, some Westerners, who were in China at the time, banded together and tried to established what was known as a Safety Zone for the locals. One of them, John Rabe (Jurgen Prochnow), was more successful than most, and became one of the key figures in this particular attempt.

Now, before I go further, there are two things I’d like to point out. One: was I being rather cruel in my description of the Japanese? Killed, murdered, raped and pillaged? Pretty strong words, if you ask me. Then again, they are describing some really strong actions. I had a small discussion about memory and representations of history. It was linked to nostalgia, but I mentioned how our own memories, our own recollections of events, can’t help but be biased against our antagonists. Ironically, I had used the Holocaust  as an example; while first-hand accounts of what happened are no doubt credible, I am absolutely positive that any misgivings survivors of the Holocaust may have had influenced and perhaps embellished, to a certain degree, of what really happened. As I sit down here and write about this, I have no doubt that similar, if not exactly the same theories, could be applied. Perhaps someone smarter, older, more famous and more dead than me may have come up with a name for this theory, but in short, we should bear in mind that historical recollections from photographic memories (especially, perhaps, from photographic memories) should be given some extra room. Just in case.

So what’s about me use the words raped and murder? It is something that not many people from the Japanese side of things are probably willing to admit freely and openly in a similar manner (read my review of ‘City of Life and Death’, a fiction film that deals with the exact same events), but no one would be able to deny that it’s not inconsistent with the bigger picture at the time. Of course, the fact that Japan invaded my country have nothing to do with that.

Secondly, notice how I also put in the name of an actor next to John Rabe’s. “But wait,” your brain should be telling you at the time, “didn’t he say this is a documentary?” That I did, dear brain of my reader, but it is, in many ways, not quite the typical kind of documentary you might come across regularly. This documentary is an exercise in the usage of Hollywood (star) power in trying to move your heart. We have different actors and actresses playing the role of different real-world characters. Thus, the very German Jurgen Prochnow plays the very German John Rabe. Haven’t heard of him? You’re bound to have heard of Woody Harrelson. He’s in there as well. As is Stephen Dorff, and a few others. I popped louder for one man, however, than most, and that man is Chris Mulkey. He was Hawk in the ‘Wing Commander’ video games, which I am a big, big fan of. I often looked out for people who appeared in the franchise in other films. John Rhys Davies, for example, was Paladin before he became Gimli to me; I came across Malcolm McDowell as Tolwyn before I came across him in ‘A Clockwork Orange’.

Anyways, they’re not there. Those who were, however, delivered a straight address to the camera. They didn’t so much as break the wall as they shattered it, talking to you directly in the form of their characters. This is a documentary, but they were acting their hearts out. Some damn fine acting was done as well, because you do feel what John Rabe feel, somehow. In a sense, I believe that was most deliberate, because they want people not just to know, but to not forgot of what happened in Nanking at the time. Interspersed with real footages and images from the time, it makes for an interesting experience.

What makes it a moving experience, however, is the interviews conducted with survivors from that period. I may have mentioned how the reliability of people who were directly affected by this should be considered, but I can’t help but be moved by the loss and grief they suffered at the time. They talked of how they had tried to sacrifice for their family, but failed. They talked of how they looked for their mother, father or baby brother after the fact, but failed. Some talked of how they had spent many years living after that, trying to forget the events that haunted them even now more than half a century later, while others wept openly at how powerless, pathetic and pitiful they felt, being left to beg for their lives at the hands of the merciless Japanese at the time.

Powerful words. But then again, this is a powerful story. A story we would do well not to forget.

Fikri read recently that Japanese actors aren’t allowed to appear in Malaysian films as Japanese characters.

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