Iris Chang: The Rape of Nanking (2007) Movie Review

“Iris Chang – The Rape of Nanking” is a documentary produced in 2007 by the Toronto based ‘Association for Learning and Preserving the History of WWII in Asia’ to mark the 70th anniversary of the Nanking Massacre. The film is based upon Chang’s bestselling 1997 book “The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II”, and charts her own experiences while drawing upon archive footage and interviews from survivors and experts from China, Japan, Canada, and the United States. The results are heartbreaking, shocking and fascinating, despite the bizarre decision to include dramatic recreations of Chang’s own life.

In these, the writer, who committed suicide in November 2004, is played by television actress Olivia Cheng, who does at least look vaguely like Chang. However, her scenes are uniformly excruciating and wholly unnecessary, especially given that the documentary also features plenty of actual footage of and interviews with Chang herself. It is truly baffling as to why the producers felt the need to include quite so many scenes of Chang staring out at the ocean, suffering from weird video-effect nightmares or writing away while a truly monstrous theme song warbles away in the background reminding viewers that she ‘gave voice to the voiceless’ and so on. As well as needless, these scenes are also misleading, as the way that they are inserted often overlaps with actual footage of Chang without ever clarifying which are real and which are re-inactions. In fairness, it’s not too hard to see what the producers were aiming at, since Chang’s life and tragic end could make for a film in their own right. Sadly, the scenes are so badly and indeed tastelessly handled they that serve as nothing more than an annoyance.

Thankfully, these only make up a small proportion of the film, and as a documentary “Iris Chang – The Rape of Nanking” is superb, providing a well balanced and informative look at the subject. The bulk of the film revolves around interviews with actual survivors of the massacre, whose stories of seeing their families raped and butchered are harrowing. The archive footage which accompanies these interviews is incredibly disturbing, actually showing the Japanese soldiers committing atrocities and including countless horrific shots of abused corpses and ruined people. Although these are hard going and often stomach churning, their inclusion is necessary, and helps to really hammer home the absolute inhumanity of the massacre.

At the same time, the documentary does not simply dwell on this, but also includes more uplifting stories of the Westerners who stayed in Nanking to try and help the Chinese people, establishing a safety zone in the city where they protected many thousands from the rampaging Japanese. These include the German, Nazi party member John Rabe, and the American missionary Minnie Vautrin, both of whom risked their own lives, and whose tales make for compelling viewing.

The film is even handed and is not a simple anti-Japanese affair, with the camera crew travelling to Japan to interview several people who have dedicated their own lives to uncovering the truth of the horrific events, and who speak out against their own government’s attempts to rewrite history and failure to properly acknowledge and apologise. As with Chang’s book, there is an investigation into the brutal treatment and de-humanization of the Japanese soldiers in an effort to try and explain their bestial behaviour. Chillingly, an interview with a member of the Japanese right is also included, in which he denies that the massacre ever took place, and dismisses the archive footage as being fake and the interviewed survivors as being actors paid by the Chinese propaganda ministry. In a way, these scenes are the most shocking of the whole film, and really lend weight to Chang’s concern, that unless these events are acknowledged and openly dealt with, then they will always be in danger of being repeated.

Such is the power of the interviews and footage that they transcend the unfortunate would-be dramatic scenes, and “Iris Chang – The Rape of Nanking” is a sterling piece of documentary film making. Gripping and powerful, it will hopefully help to bring the massacre to the attention of even more people so that the truth can be known and lessons learned.

Anne Pick, William Spahic (director) / Michael Betcherman (screenplay)
CAST: Olivia Cheng … Iris Chang


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