Darkest hour in the spotlight

By Liu Wei (China Daily)
Updated: 2007-12-13 07:11

The Nanjing Massacre, in which an estimated 300,000 Chinese civilians and soldiers were killed and tens of thousands of women were raped, is one of the biggest atrocities of World War II. To coincide with the 70th anniversary of the massacre, filmmakers across the world are shining the spotlight on this dark chapter of history.


The documentary Nanking focuses on a group of Westerners who chose to stay behind to protect those who could not flee in time.

Iris Chang: The Rape of Nanking, a feature-length documentary film, tells the story of Nanjing (then known as Nanking) through the eyes of Iris Chang, known as a champion of justice for her best-selling The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II.

Co-directors Anne Pick and Bill Spahic first learned about the Nanjing Massacre four years ago when their son Matt studied it at school. Later at a fundraising dinner they discussed the possibility of making a documentary with Joseph Wong, chairman of the Toronto chapter of ALPHA (Association for Learning and Preserving the History of WWII in Asia), the organization responsible for adding the subject to the Ontario high school curriculum.

At Wong's suggestion, Pick and Spahic read Iris Chang's book. Impressed by the emotional and deeply-felt way in which Chang told her story, Pick and Spahic decided that rather than making a conventional historical documentary, they would tell the story of Nanjing from Chang's point-of-view.

The crew traveled to Nanjing last year, where they interviewed historians and survivors of the massacre, including Xia Shuqin, the last remaining survivor Chang interviewed. To make the film as authentic as possible, they took the survivors to the locations where their family were murdered.

The crew also went to Japan, where they interviewed a former Japanese soldier and filmed incognito at a reunion of war veterans at the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, where convicted war criminals are honored along with the rest of Japan's war dead.

The $1.5 million documentary also uses historical footage, excerpts from Chang's TV appearances and speeches, and stages reenactments of Chang talking with her family and friends.

"People never learn about this history in North America," vice-chairperson of Canada ALPHA Liu Meiling says. "Making this film is another educational tool."

The idea for Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman's documentary, Nanking, came when the vice-chairman of AOL, Ted Leonsis, read an obituary for Iris Chang. The story stuck with him, and after reading Chang's book he pulled out his checkbook.

Lenonsis then invited Guttentag to direct a film based on the story.

The 89-minute documentary, which premiered in China in July, follows a group of about 20 Westerners who chose to stay behind in the city to protect those who could not flee in time. These missionaries, businessmen and professors established a neutral safety zone within the city to protect the civilians.

The war's horror is brought to life through period footage, interviews with survivors and eyewitnesses, and a staged reading of excerpts from the letters and diaries.

The film has been nominated for the best documentary in this year's Oscar.

Guttentag says that focusing on these foreigners' heroic efforts makes the story more accessible for Westerners, who may not know much about the massacre.

John Rabe, an international co-production, is to feature one of these Western philanthropists.

With a budget of $20 million, the story will focus on Rabe, then an employer of Siemens, who was transferred to the company's Nanjing office in 1931. When his company ordered him to leave in 1937, he chose to stay behind and later helped establish the safety zone.

Florian Gallenberger, 35, is directing the film. His debut feature, I Want To Be, won an Academy Award for Best Short Film in 2001. Famed cinematographer Jurgen Jurges has also signed on.

Adapted from Rabe's diary about Nanjing, the film is a Sino-German co-production with a cast featuring Zhang Jingchu and German actor Ulrich Tukur.

Chinese directors are also busy interpreting the massacre in their own way. Young mainland director Lu Chuan has been filming Nanking! Nanking! since early October, after three years of pre-production.

The story centers on several people's different experiences during the massacre. Lu says the film will not focus on recording the historic events; neither will it be simply a work of anger.

"The film will not only reflect the Nanjing Massacre, but all wars," Lu says.

Lu has cast a group of Chinese young A-listers, such as Liu Ye and Gao Yuanyuan, in the hope that their appeal to young audiences will pique future interest in China's past.

The film has already suffered setbacks, such as a dwindling budget, the leaking of the script on the Internet, and personal attacks against Lu, but the director says he is determined to finish the job.

"I hope more filmmakers will get interested in this story, because it deserves 10, 20 or even 100 adaptations."

Another Nanjing-related project on the horizon is The Children of Huangshi (Huangshi de Haizi), a $40 million Chinese, Australian and German co-production.

The story follows 23-year-old English reporter George Hogg who lands in China to cover the Nanjing Massacre. He is captured by Japanese troops but is soon rescued by Chinese army officer, Chen Hansheng. While fleeing, the pair meet about 60 Chinese orphans and then set out to escort the children to a safe town in Northwest China's Gansu Province.

The film is adapted from Hogg's book I See a New China. A privileged Oxford graduate who worked as a journalist in China in the 1930s, Hogg later contracted tetanus after he injured his toe playing basketball with the children he saved. With no medicine to prevent the disease from spreading, he died, aged 29.

Former James Bond director, Canadian-born Roger Spottiswoode, will direct the film, with Jonathan Rhys Meyers in the lead role and Hong Kong superstar Chow Yun-fat to play the Chinese officer.

"The stories of Japanese atrocities were endless, common and undisputed. But their appalling atrocities in China were less well known," Spottiswoode says.

The film is due in cinemas early next year.

(China Daily 12/13/2007 page19)

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