Nanking Review

Nanking poster

Genre: Historical Documentary
Year Released: 2007

Distributor: THINKfilm/Image Entertainment/HBO

Origin: USA
Running Time: 89 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: R
Related Films/Series: N/A

For Fans Of: Don’t Cry Nanking, The Tokyo Trial, The Testimony, City of Life and Death, At the End of Slavery

Notes: N/A
Fun Facts:
-Yes, that’s Woody Harrelson playing Bob Wilson. The same guy you know from Cheers, White Men Can’t Jump, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is in this documentary.

-Nanking was directed by Bill Guttentag who has also worked on Knife Fight, Soundtrack for a Revolution, and Twin Towers.

-Despite most of the documentary being a reenactment and a live reading, the dialogue is based directly on real-life testimonies, journal entries, and radio transcripts.

-Nanking or Nanjing (either pronunciation is acceptable) is a city in China that has over 8 million people currently.

It can be a good refresher to rewatch films I haven’t seen in a while. I do this more often than not with several of the things I’ve reviewed. Enough of the selfish talk though. This documentary I revisited deals with a very heavy subject that happened in history. Sure, I’ve been known to cover documentaries that tackle depressing subjects, but you all should know that by now. I’m certainly not foreign to films that take place during World War II either (just look at my reviews for Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, Mother of Mine, and Grave of the Fireflies). 

This time, I’m reviewing a tragedy that befell China’s twelfth-largest city decades ago.

Nanking is a documentary where various actors sit down and recite the events of those who survived Japan’s attack on China in 1937. The words from those who lived and visited there including local Chinese, Americans, and one German come alive as these actors retell their personal accounts in this read-along. It’s mixed with actual archived footage and interviews from the real survivors in China. This documentary based on research and the nonfiction book “The Rape of Nanking” cover the atrocities of the Nanking massacre where Japanese troops killed at will, assaulted people, and the name of that aforementioned book even got literal as the soldiers rounded up and violated women and girls. These stories involved how others were rescuing the locals and how they withstood the Japanese army.

This was certainly atypical of other documentaries that I’ve watched in my life, but I liked how the presentation was. All these actors sitting together in a room playing all these real-life people was certainly fascinating and all of them did a good job carrying that solemnity and seriousness of the Nanking Massacre. I do give credit to the filmmakers actually talking to some of the living Chinese survivors which gave it a bigger sense of authenticity as they gave a firsthand account of their experiences. Their stories were ghastly as they talked about events and experiences so gruesome enough to give horror movie directors chills. While this was a different format compared to any other historical documentary, it was a nice change of pace while the message was still presented well.

I did have some issues with the Nanking documentary though. One thing that was minimized was John Rabe’s Nazi background. I know he saved lots of Chinese lives, but that affiliation was only mentioned in passing and the hypocrisy is quite obvious about him caping for people of a different race or nationality than what obviously happened in Europe. While it’s admirable that people were saving lives despite the carnage, it is hard to ignore the White Man’s Burden implications for the Americans and Europeans who lived there at the time. Yes, it actually happened, but I wasn’t a fan of everything with how they presented it when it’s implied that only these good Caucasians could have saved lives and the Chinese couldn’t save themselves. That overemphasis got on my nerves even though the people were heroic.

Nanking was a great documentary even though there were some flaws. The live-reading aspect was something creative and it meshed with the archived footage. The editing and production worked well in that regard. The scoring worked in its subtlety and not being overbearing. I did have issues with how the heroes were portrayed and it got to have some White Savior complexes later on which did rub me the wrong way. Nanking was a worthy watch even with some of the reservations though.

Adjustable Point System:
Add 1 point if you like historical documentaries.
Subtract 1-3 points if you can’t stand White Man’s Burden implications.

-Ingenious usage of live-reading
-Powerful testimonies from the Chinese survivors
-Good filming production

-White Savior themes
-Minimizing John Rabe’s Nazi affiliations
-Can be too brutal to watch at times

Final Score: 8/10 points

Content Warning: Nanking is a documentary for older audiences. The imagery and dialogue recount the brutal aspects of the Rape of Nanking where there were thousands of people dead, tortured, sexually assaulted, and dismembered in various ways. The film doesn’t shy away from showing corpses and one gruesome scene involves a partially decapitated head from a body.

-Curtis Monroe

All photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. Nanking is property of THINKfilm, Image Entertainment, and HBO. The movie poster is from Bill Guttentag’s website and is property of Bill Guttentag, THINKfilm, Image Entertainment, and HBO.

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