Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Nanking, Armageddon in Retrospect

The most powerful film I saw last few days was undoubtly Nanking.

I didn't have stomach for it. Then I had to.

The basic theme is familiar for a Chinese, the unimaginable crime of the rape of Nanking (Nanjing) committed by imperial Japanese army. The story though is told through a fresh angel, through the lens of group of foreigners who chose to stay and tried their best to protest Chinese civilians by attempting to establish a "safety zone". The events are streamlined with diaries and letters of the foreign observer, intertwined with interviews of actual Chinese victim and Japanese soldiers.

In one of the most powerful interviews, an elder - he was 7 at the time - described how his mother breastfed his infant brother even as she was dying from being bayoneted through the chest. Blood oozed and mixed with breast milk, but his brother was too young to know.

The weight of the events must have been heavy. Minnie Vautrin, Dean of Ginling College, and one of the eyewitness narrators, committed suicide after she returned to the States in 1940. Iris Chang, the author of the book from which this documentary is based on, also gave up her life at age of 36.

It's important to note Nanking isn't an indictment of Japanese people in general. In China today, there are people who are so anti-Japanese, for what they had done and for their lack of sincere apology, so much so that they frown upon the use of Japanese language in public. Hello! the Japanese is based on Chinese characters. Don't hate on the language. There are also people, especially young folks who are so enamored in the Japanese culture. Little do they know some of the pervert-ness enlarged by war is actually in the Japanese culture. For example, raping is tolerated in Samurai culture, sexual discourse of stressfulness is reflected in Hentai.

The sad truth is, the story wouldn't have received the same credibility if it were not told by Westerners, reconstructed from diaries of foreigners of the time. I always wondered why there isn't a Chinese version of "Schindler's List" from Chinese film makers, since many in the West are still not aware of the existence of such crime to this day. The answer given by my friend was, it wouldn't be credible enough for a Chinese filmmaker to do it.

Incidentally, one of the most interesting piece I read over the weekend was the last speech of Kurt Vonnegut, author of Slaughterhouse Five, who died last year. The actual speech was deliver by his son posthumously. I was skipping through the pages of Armageddon in Retrospect in a book store, then I couldn't put it down.

Did I mention bookstores are the best place to read things you normally wouldn't have patience of?

It was filled with insights, wits and humor. Kurt Vonnegut mused at the state of humanity, offered his opinion on jazz as "safe sex on the highest order", advised on young aspiring writer to use less semicolons ("they are useless except maybe to indicated you have been to college."), remarked on strength of African Americans for "the thing they've been through" and offered religious faith as part of the reason. And yes, he did cite Carl Marx's "opium to a man". [update5/15/08: I just learned there is book club of Vonnegut in Guizhou university.]

In this sometimes madly world we lives, as Kurt points out, a little humor helps.

(ps: Here is an interesting war time film produced by the U.S. War Department. Notice the music used at the beginning of the film? Yup, that later became the current Chinese National Anthem.)

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