Directors: Bill Guttentag, Dan Sturman
Writers: Bill Guttentag, Dan Sturman, Elizabeth Bentley
Producers: Bill Guttentag, Michael Jacobs, Ted Leonsis
Starring: Rosalind Chao, Stephen Dorff, John Getz, Mariel Hemingway, Michelle Krusiec, Woody Harrelson
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 88 min.
read my spoiler disclaimer

reviewed by Andrew James
      Nanking is not a film to walk into expecting an entertaining evening. It can be difficult to stomach for even some of the most iron clad of constitutions. All I really knew about the film was the cast and the 98% fresh rating over at Rotten Tomatoes. Had I known what to expect, I may have prepared myself a little better as the film literally had my head aching a bit by the time the credits rolled due to its heavy subject matter. This is not a slight against the film however; far from it. In fact, it's a mighty fine historical documentary that's put together with an innovative format.

      Most of us know the general story of the rape of Nanking. Shortly before The United States had entered world war II, the Japanese army invaded China; first conquering Shanghai, before setting its sights on the capital city of Nanking. Once inside the city walls, the Japanese troops completely ravaged the city; burning buildings, looting homes and stores, raping women and killing just about anything that moved - including women, children, the elderly and even infants. This is fairly common knowledge among those of us who elected to not sleep through high school social studies class.

      What I wasn't aware of, was the small band of foreign expatriates living within the city contributing to society and culture of the people. A professor, a surgeon and a handful of businessmen from all over the world; even including a Nazi from Germany, helped setup an international "safety zone" within the city where refugees of the battered city could have a place to stay... hopefully peacefully. With no arms and no international help, this small band of whites from the western world helped fend off the invaders and are thought to have saved about 250,000 lives.

      The film plays out in three ways: as a talking heads documentary, a load of dramatic archival footage and also as a dramatic reading of diaries and letters from semi-well known actors and actresses such as Woody Harrelson and Stephen Dorf. The actors are sitting in a room dressed as they might've been in 1938 and looking a bit like their real life people that they're portraying. Interspersed with the archival footage, we get the actors give us their dramatic version of what their "character's" diary or letter said. They have them memorized, so they're looking directly into the camera as they speak; sort of appearing as though they are channeling the real life person's soul to give their thoughts on what happened during those grim hours.

      The rest of the talking head stuff is fascinating and gut wrenching. Several real life survivors give their accounts and tell their tales of those few horrific weeks. A couple of them are really hard to listen to as the acts that were committed against them and their families is beyond sick in its brutality and barbarism. Some more archival interview footage (that looks like it was shot roughly in the early 1970s) of interviews with Japanese soldiers who took part in the rape of the city was also fascinating. A couple of the old men looked like they showed no remorse for their actions even as they told their tales of rape and mayhem. But another was visibly shaken up and regretful.

      Along with all of this we get some extraordinary, original footage of the city before and during the siege. The carnage devastated upon the city is awesome in its power and magnitude and audience tensions visibly built as we actually witness the Japanese soldiers as they approach the city; knowing what is in store for the poor people within its walls.

      The only fault I can find with the film is the dramatizational readings by the actors. Most of the actors you'll definitely recognize, but aside from Woody Harrelson, you probably don't know their names as they are mostly B-grade movie stars or are ex-television stars. Admittedly the subject matter is very heavy and sad, but the readings are ridiculously overly melodramatic. It's not exactly laughingly poor, but it is taken a little bit over the top for my tastes and really detracted from what the film was trying to give us. I will say it was an interesting and probably the best way to portray some of the tales of Nanking, but I just wish the actors had not taken their roles quite so seriously... even though the subject matter is more serious than a heart attack.

      All in all a fine film. Worth tracking down if you can find it and stomach the harshness. It seems to be getting a VERY limited release as it only played in a very small theater for a week in Minneapolis. Still, I encourage everyone to hunt it down if possible and you'll understand why critics seem to be raving about it and you just may learn something in the process.

Click "play" to see the trailer:

IMDb profile
Official Site
Flixster Profile for Nanking