A masterful fusion of stylistic artifice, archival footage and authentic interviews, Nanking vividly re-creates a much ignored and ignominious episode of 20th-century history. Inspired by Iris Chang's book The Rape of Nanking, filmmakers Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman set about chronicling the atrocities that transpired in the eponymous Chinese city in late 1937, when Japanese forces, which had been involved in an aggressive empire-building campaign on the Asian mainland since 1931, began a brutal siege of what was then China's capital.
Beyond the facts — more than 260,000 Chinese civilians died, tens of thousands were raped and tortured, and a great city was reduced to rubble — Guttentag and Sturman succeed magnificently in bringing the human dimensions of the story to life. The documentary casts light on a small group of Westerners working in Nanking at the time, comprised of missionaries, teachers and doctors, who endeavored to convert their compound into a "safe zone" for refugees fleeing the onslaught of Japanese troops. Against the imperial Japanese army and, arguably worse, the Western powers' general indifference to the Chinese plight, this small group administered to the wounded and struggled to save men from execution, rescue women from rape and reunite families.
In crafting this mosaic of events, the filmmakers’ method is three-layered. Interviews with survivors of the siege and a trove of rarely seen and disturbingly brutal newsreel footage comprise the first two approaches. They may be conventional to this genre, but Guttentag and Sturman utilize both to powerful effect, even including archival interviews with Japanese soldiers stationed in Nanking. The latter are chilling in their moral ambiguity as the soldiers, even decades later, refuse to express culpability or remorse.
Nanking 's third layer of exposition is more curious and riskier in terms of tone. Here, a cast of professional actors, among them Hugo Armstrong, Rosalind Chao, Stephen Dorff, Woody Harrelson, Jurgen Prochnow and Mariel Hemingway, each take on the role of the various "safe zone" expatriates, reading from their letters and diaries. Each actor performs brilliantly, and one realizes that using professional actors was the perfect choice: In a way that non-actors cannot for lack of training, Nanking 's performers breathe fiery life into words written long ago by a few intensely committed and embattled individuals, all of whom believed in their cause, even when they felt outnumbered by enemies and disbelievers alike. Most heartbreakingly, Nanking follows the fate of its characters after the siege lifted.
Whether because of the rise of Nazism, America's avid neutrality at the time or the haunting specter of all they lived through in Nanking, the story's heroes never find closure or common cause from their own countrymen. It's been argued that it wasn't support for Hitler but indifference toward his policies that allowed the Holocaust to happen. The same can be said of the world's reaction to the events at Nanking. Documentaries often strive to wake us up, to give us a historical context for the difficult choices we will make in the future. But only a few do so with the artistic acumen and moral conviction of Nanking, a documentary that may well rank among the greatest retellings of a historical event put on film.
Cast: Woody Harrelson, Mariel Hemingway, Jurgen Prochnow, Stephen Dorff, John Getz and Rosalind Chao
Directors: Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman
Screenwriters: Bill Guttentag, Dan Sturman and Elisabeth Bentley
Producers: Ted Leonsis, Bill Guttentag and Michael Jacobs
Rating: R for disturbing images and descriptions of wartime atrocities, including rape
Running time: 91 min.
Release date: December 12, 2007 NY