Review: Black Sun: The Nanking Massacre (1995)

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Taiwanese director T.F.Mou may not be a prolific film-maker but he is definitely a controversial one. Black Sun: The Nanking Massacre is the follow-up film to his grisly 1988 docudrama Man Behind The Sun .

Working with a larger budget and a broader historical canvas, Mou recreates the horrors behind the rape of Nanking in 1937 by the invading Japanese army. The total destruction of Nanking was seen by the Japanese government as being crucial in breaking the spirit of China’s population.

In a decade to be littered with barbaric treatment of civilians and soldiers by the Japanese army, the Nanking massacre still stands as the blackest chapter in this period.

After the military campaign is won by the Japanese, Mou shows us an orchestrated reign of terror waged by the Japanese army against Nanking’s civilian population, of which 300,000 people would die within three months.

Black Sun is mostly set during a two week period in December 1937. Using two extended middle class Nanking families, the movie traces their efforts to avoid and eventually escape the marauding soldiers.

T.F.Mou could never be described as an actors’ director and his films often suffer with wooden performances from cliched characters. But as an intelligent writer and a film-maker with an eye for the unusual in all its forms – Mou is one of Asia’s most under-appreciated cinema talents.

The docudrama form is well suited to Mou’s style of film-making, and in Black Sun he skilfully integrates documentary footage to introduce and flesh out much of the movie’s drama.

Explicit and shocking, there are moments in this picture which will be unwatchable for many viewers. As with Man Behind The Sun, Mou probes deeper than the superficial exploitation focus by exploring the horrific mindset of Japan’s military leadership at the time. The main Japanese military personnel are named and their roles in the Nanking massacre are well detailed. There are some chilling insights into what drives these deluded individuals, as displayed in a long scene where two officers discuss the philosophical values of traditional swords used in the killing competitions carried out by the soldiers in Nanking.

On a more base level, a general announces to his troops “every Chinese woman in Nanking is a comfort woman.” The wholesale rape and sexual atrocities that follow are committed by men whose bloodlust has been sanctioned by their leaders.

The policy of starving Nanking’s population into submission is carried out by soldiers who regularly bathe their faces in bowls of fresh egg yolk whilst bragging about their “kills” for the day.

Nanking soon becomes a charnel house of a city which at night is illuminated by flame and inhabited by cannibals and killers. Random acts of violence escalate as the all-conquering army stamps its authority on the populace. In minutes, a young family is all but destroyed as the father is bayoneted to death and his wife pack raped, while their newborn baby is boiled alive in a cooking pot.

Refugees from their own city, many Chinese flee to the international sector of Nanking where European and American agencies seem able, politically, to hold off the Japanese. Watch for the disconcerting use of a Nazi insignia by a German aid worker.

The main set-piece of Black Sun is an astounding sequence involving the incineration of thousands of dead bodies lining the banks of the Yangtze river on the outskirts of Nanking. This is done under orders from the military hierarchy so that a visiting international delegation won’t see the remains of these atrocities. In a tremendous logistical feat, historically and cinematically, we see dieseline soaked cadavers create a human bonfire of surreal proportions. This growing conflagration snakes its way along the river’s edge eating away at what appears to be miles of rotting human bodies. A truly mesmerisng passage of film.

A gruelling experience right to the end, as we again witness an innocent Chinese family slaughtered in a frenzied attack by Japanese soldiers. The lone survivor – a young boy – walks the darkened, empty streets of Nanking. In a silent, backwards glance his eyes ask the question – why? Black Sun: The Nanking Massacre is a valid attempt to answer this.

9 gruesome beheadings out of 10.
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