- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 27, 2007

HONG KONG

For decades, Chinese filmmakers haven’t made a major feature film about one of their country’s biggest wartime atrocities: the Nanjing massacre of 1937.

Now at least two directors are preparing to make a movie set against the Japanese military’s brutal killings in the former Chinese capital.

Historians say at least 150,000 civilians were slaughtered and tens of thousands of women raped in the Japanese rampage.

Trying to tell the story of Nanjing, or Nanking as it was known to English speakers at the time, on the big screen has been hard for Hong Kong director Yim Ho and his Chinese counterpart Lu Chuan. They have gone through tough vetting by the Chinese government that reflects conflicting agendas of Chinese nationalism and good diplomatic relations with Japan.

Both say they’ve received governmental approval, but only after an elaborate process that involved multiple departments, despite both having Chinese state-run movie studios as partners.

Mr. Yim, a respected art-house director who made the 2001 movie “Pavilion of Women” featuring Willem Dafoe, said his script was first rejected by China’s Film Bureau several years ago before getting approval on a second try this year.

Mr. Lu, a rising Chinese director, said the approval process for his movie, titled “Nanjing! Nanjing!,” took five months.

“The process was more tense than usual. It was more complicated than usual,” he said.

“This movie touches on the sphere of diplomacy. The government departments that oversee movies aren’t the main departments overseeing this movie. That’s all I can say,” Mr. Lu adds cautiously.

In Mr. Yim’s case, he said his movie was vetted by the Film Bureau, the Chinese foreign ministry and the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Propaganda Department.

The Chinese government’s careful handling of the two movies are apparently motivated by the desire to promote nationalism and boost the image of the Chinese Communist Party, and to maintain strong ties with economically important Japan in a year that coincides with two sensitive anniversaries.

This year marks both the 70th anniversary of the massacre and the 35th anniversary of Sino-Japanese diplomatic ties.

Highlighting Japanese atrocities is historically important because it evokes the success of China’s ruling communists, said Phil Deans, a scholar on Sino-Japanese relations at Temple University’s Japan campus.

The Japanese invasion of China helped expose the failures of the then-ruling Nationalist Party, Mr. Deans noted.

However, while Chinese officials don’t mind a certain level of anti-Japanese sentiment, they’re worried about it getting out of control and scaring away crucial Japanese investment, or snowballing into a greater anti-government movement like the pro-democracy protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989, he said. (Chinese troops crushed those protests, killing at least hundreds.)

Anti-Japanese feeling over the Nanjing atrocities among the general Chinese public remains strong. Demonstrators vandalized Japanese shops and smashed windows at Japanese diplomatic offices in Shanghai and Beijing in April 2005 to protest purported whitewashing of atrocities in Japanese textbooks.

“How can you make that pot simmer without making it boil? That’s the delicate balance the party has to do,” said Mr. Deans, who predicts the new movies may portray the atrocities as being committed by a clique not representative of the Japanese people.

Mr. Yim’s movie may have drawn especially intense scrutiny because of its potentially international audience. It’s a $35 million English-language production with Hollywood investment that the director hopes to craft into a star-studded project.

The Hong Kong director’s movie, called “Nanking Xmas 1937,” revolves around a group of foreigners who sheltered locals from Japanese brutality.

Earlier this year, the documentary “Nanking” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, and co-director Bill Guttentag said while the filmmakers submitted an outline of the movie to the Chinese government, officials didn’t interfere with its content. Partly shot in Nanjing, it also centers on foreigners who protected locals from Japanese soldiers.

Woody Harrelson, Mariel Hemingway and other actors play the foreigners in stage readings recounting the horrors.

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