Movie review: 'Nanking' A tale of brutality and bravery

  • Article by: COLIN COVERT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 31, 2008 - 5:04 PM

"Nanking" is a powerful testament to heroism.

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Scene from documentary "Nanking."

At the close of World War II, Allied prosecutors presented evidence that Japanese troops slaughtered about 200,000 noncombatants in their 1937 invasion of Nanking, which was China's capital then. The wholesale killing of Chinese men on the pretext that they were soldiers fleeing in civilian clothes became an orgy of looting, sexual violence and murder now known as the Rape of Nanking.

The survivors of the carnage -- one of the bloodiest massacres of modern times -- now face elimination from history. Last year, on the 70th anniversary of the rampage, Japanese filmmaker Satoru Mizushima produced a revisionist documentary denying the atrocities. According to Mizushima, whose project was supported by nationalist legislators, academics and broadcasters, "There is one indisputable fact: There was no massacre. We don't want our children to grow up thinking Japan is a barbarian country."

Luckily, accounts by Westerners who witnessed the city's siege recorded the true scope of the savagery, a story told in the powerful documentary "Nanking," directed by Bill Guttentag (an Oscar winner for the documentary short "Twin Towers") and Dan Sturman.

Through vintage newsreels, we see Nanking as it was before the invasion, a beautiful, parklike city where many Westerners lived and worked. Archival footage also shows Japanese bombs hitting the city to pave the way for the advancing army. Chinese who could afford to flee left, and foreign occupants were ordered to evacuate. Twenty-two Europeans and Americans courageously remained, unwilling to pursue their own safety while their Chinese friends and neighbors remained in peril. The group included Illinois missionary schoolteacher Minnie Vaturin, Chinese-born American physician Bob Wilson and conscience-stricken German businessman John Rabe, who has been called China's Oskar Schindler. They organized protection for as many as 200,000 Chinese in a two-square-mile "safe zone." The Westerners also filmed and smuggled out chilling footage of the slaughter, shown here alongside interviews with elderly Chinese survivors.

Actors Woody Harrelson, Jürgen Prochnow, Stephen Dorff and Mariel Hemingway narrate from the journals and letters of those Western witnesses. The on-camera readings bring history to life as a standard voiceover could never do. Prochnow is a troublingly complex figure as Rabe, who takes a courageous stand against local atrocities while ignoring the true character of the Third Reich. In showing how Vaturin was haunted by the horrors she observed -- she saved thousands of lives, yet considered herself a failure -- Hemingway's performance conveys a vulnerable dimension of humility. She proves the adage that a hero is not someone who acts without fear, but in spite of it. "Nanking" is grim but ultimately uplifting, a reminder that even in dangerous times, brave individuals can hold the line against barbarism.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186

  • NANKING

    ★★★ 1/2 out of four stars

    Rating: R for disturbing images and descriptions of wartime atrocities, including rape.

    Where: Lagoon.

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