FEB. 15, 2008
Just Outside Armageddon
By Mark Jenkins
Directed by Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman
West to safety: Nanking women march to sanctuary (ThinkFilm)
THE OPENING SEQUENCE of Nanking seems entirely wrong. A group of actors assemble for readings about the brutal 1937 Japanese assault on China's then-capital, and they're mostly white Americans and Europeans: Mariel Hemingway, Woody Harrelson, Hugo Armstrong, Das Boot skipper Jurgen Prochnow, even Stephen Dorff. Soon enough, though, the sense of the documentary's strategy is revealed. Some 200,000 Chinese civilians and POWs were slaughtered in Nanking (now usually called Nanjing), but little of their testimony survives. The details of this monumental crime endure mostly in the writings of the missionaries, doctors, and businessmen who observed the horrors and, to their credit, tried to stop them.
The Westerners suffered from what they saw, if far less than the Chinese who were bayoneted, decapitated, or viciously raped. Yet the observers, some of whom created a "Safety Zone" that preserved thousands of Chinese lives, were best situated to grasp the whole story, and are vital to Iris Chang's 1997 history, The Rape of Nanking. (This film is not based directly on Chang's book, but is indebted to it nonetheless.) The Japanese had a military rationale for their ferocity: After the Chinese army hastily withdrew, many soldiers stayed, shedding their uniforms and attempting to blend into the civilian population. But the carnage unleashed on Nanking wasn't simply meant to neutralize troops who might otherwise fight again. It was designed, to the extent that there was any logic behind it, to debase, to terrorize, and to illustrate Japanese notions of "racial" superiority over the people from whom they had taken much of their culture. (The rape of Nanking is a sensitive issue in Japan, where some insist that Chang's book and this film are propaganda. But the Japanese are not being singled out by history, which also has harsh tales to recount about European colonialism, American slavery, and more.)
Not everyone who speaks in the film is an actor playing a Westerner. A few Chinese survivors, who would have been terrified children at the time, describe horrific incidents. Several Japanese veterans also describe atrocities, sometimes with chilling detachment. (One says that the Japanese had to kill POWs; there were too many for any other practical solution.) The recurring characters, however, are mostly Americans: Surgeon Bob Wilson (Harrelson) maintained a hospital after the Japanese siege began. Missionary and educator Minnie Vautrin (Hemingway) hid hundreds and perhaps thousands of women who otherwise would have been raped or conscripted into brothels. Episcopal minister and amateur filmmaker John Magee (Armstrong) established a hospital and shot some of the footage that was smuggled from China and survived to appear in Nanking. The most fascinating character is John Rabe (Prochnow), a member of the Nazi Party who objected strenuously to Japanese brutality. When he returned to Germany, he sent films of Nanking's agonies to Hitler, and was promptly shut up by the Gestapo.
As filmmaking, Nanking is problematic. The on-screen introduction of the actors is a bit distracting, and movie's thoroughness is inevitably compromised by the limited archival footage and the mere 90-minute running time. Yet directors Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman had little choice but to take the perspective of the outsiders, and that distance may be essential. Assuming the viewpoint of the Chinese would be, in addition to logistically difficult, overwhelming and quite possibly unendurable. As for their vanquishers, during the six weeks they ravished Nanking, the Japanese are simply incomprehensible.
Instrument of Fate
By Mark Jenkins
Directed by Francisco Vargas
In the Face of It: Don Plutarco and the enemy (Film Movement)
ANYONE WITH MUCH EXPERIENCE of the American Film Institute's annual Latin American Film Festival will quickly recognize The Violin's setup: folklore versus fascism. What distinguishes Mexican writer-director Francisco Vargas's debut feature, which did indeed have its D.C. premiere at the Lat-Am Fest, is that the movie doesn't propose that enchantment can best evil. The hero, octogenarian farmer and violinist Don Plutarco (Don Angel Tavira), is determined and ingenious, but not supernatural.
The film is set in the 1970s in the state of Guerrero, site of a peasant revolt that suggests more recent ones in Chiapas or elsewhere in Latin America. Not that Vargas is especially interested in the details of one particular uprising; his use of black-and-white stock and classic agrarian imagery pulls the story out of time and toward the realm of myth. Yet unlike many similar films from the region, The Violin counters the picturesque with the visceral. That's why it opens with a brutal torture scene, the low-slung camera crammed into a small hut with the abuser and his victim.The next scene is gentler, yet it quietly illustrates the harshness of local life: Don Plutarco, who sometimes performs on the street with his guitarist son (Gerardo Taracena), prepares to play with his bow attached to an arm that lacks a hand. (Vargas never explains if the stump is a result of war or an everyday mishap.) Soon, the army attacks and the son heads into the hills with other revolutionaries, leaving Don Plutarco behind. That's not because he violinist is too old to be of use. He mortgages his life for a mule, and returns to his fields to retrieve ammunition buried amid the corn. The area is now occupied by troops, but Don Plutarco manages to enter, in part because of his grandfatherly demeanor but also because the local commanding officer (Dagoberto Gama) is a music buff. The old man promises to teach the captain how to play, but can that ruse disguise the old man's real motive for long?
Naturalism with a twist of melodrama, The Violin is closer to photographer Sebastiao Salgado's epic views of exploited hordes than to Robert Bresson's austere tales of working-class martyrs. Yet Tavira is akin to one of Bresson's "models," non-actors chosen more for their appearance and manner than their ability to assume a character. The first-time actor's face, often shown in closeup, is central to the film's power. Vargas's style can be overly self-conscious, and his script sometimes resorts to a fabulism that comes all to easily to Latin American cinema. It's Tavira who conveys the story's humanity, with weathered appearance and deliberate movements that embody a people's resolve.