Men Behind the Sun 4: Black Sun – The Nanking Massacre (1996) Movie Review

From the Crusades to the Nazis, the various atrocities committed during wars have been covered fairly well by most high school and college history classes. However, one event that rarely gets much international exposure is Japan’s conquest of China in the late 1930s. The accounts of Japan’s treatment of the conquered Chinese are at a level that would make even the Nazis uncomfortable. One event in particular, the notorious occupation of the city of Nanking in 1937, stands out as the pinnacle of depravity. Over the span of about three months, the Japanese army systematically slaughtered roughly 300,000 people, and ‘The Rape of Nanking’ was born.

As with any important historical event, life just wouldn’t be complete without a movie about it. To fill this void, director T.F. Mao (the “Men Behind the Sun” series) has given us “Men Behind the Sun 4”, also known as “Black Sun: The Nanking Massacre.” Pitched as an unflinching examination of the atrocities committed by the occupying Japanese, “Black Sun” is set up as a fictional story about the travails of a Chinese family in Nanking during the occupation. The result is a pseudo documentary that mixes real people and events with a ‘cute’ story to tie them all together.

Mao’s approach is sound, as it allows the viewer to identify with someone who also provides the film with an emotional center. This is a good thing, because just about everyone else who shows up onscreen gets killed, making the word ‘bloodbath’ scarcely appropriate to describe the content of “Black Sun.” Apparently in an attempt to be as accurate as possible, Mao made the decision to show all 300,000 Chinese deaths, and as a result virtually every minute of the film’s running length involves someone getting killed. Be it decapitation, evisceration, strangulation, mutilation or an old fashioned firing squad, Mao smothers the film with death and depravity.

Mao’s depiction of the Japanese is as heartless and soulless savages, while the Chinese are shown as meek and submissive. I suppose this is a dual-pronged criticism aimed not only at the ruthless behavior of the Japanese, but at the cowardice of the Chinese people as well, as if Mao is blaming the lack of action by the Chinese as much as the action of the Japanese. Mao’s characterization of the Japanese soldiers is rather clever and deft, and he shows them not as wild eyed, blood drinking psychopaths, but as something even more sinister — there is a cruel logic and cleanly applied sadism behind everything they do.

Mao’s use of file footage and title cards with miscellaneous historical tidbits about the Nanking massacre reminded me of D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation.” And as Griffith’s film turned out to be little more than stunningly produced Klu Klux Klan propaganda, “Black Sun” comes across as blatant anti-Japanese propaganda. Mao’s pseudo documentary style also begs unfavorable comparisons to the works of Michael Moore, and the contextual parallels between “Black Sun” and “Fahrenheit 9/11” are startling and not particularly flattering.

Let’s not kid ourselves, “Black Sun” is not a documentary, and the emphasis is on shock rather than historical accuracy. That’s not to say the film has no visceral impact, because it does. The scene where the Japanese dump thousands of dead bodies on the beach and set them on fire is truly haunting, as is the closing shot of the lone surviving child running down a foggy street littered with bodies, with the scene set to “Silent Night.”

Also, the connection between “Black Sun” to the rest of the exploitative “Men Behind the Sun” films doesn’t help the film’s credibility. The feeling is of watching a PBS history show via the old Saturday afternoon chop-socky flicks, and the film’s overall cheesiness and overt value as propaganda keeps the viewer from taking it seriously, which is a shame because this is a subject that deserves serious study.

Unfortunately the film’s manic acting and ragged camerawork detracts from the somber tone Mao is trying to create, and Mao further hampers the production by abandoning the plotline about the Chinese family about a third of the way into the film. As a result, whatever emotional focal point the film had disappears, leaving “Black Sun” to descend into a morass of repetitive slaughter. Given the style in which Mao presents the film, one can’t help but feel that “Black Sun” is exploitation masquerading as a faux documentary.

Tun Fei Mou (director) / Tun Fei Mou (screenplay)

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