Neither easy to watch nor to listen to, the documentary Nanking recounts in stomach-churning detail the violence perpetrated by Japanese military on unarmed Chinese civilians during the winter of 1937-38. Taking their cues from the late historian Iris Chang’s groundbreaking book The Rape of Nanking, co-directors Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman edit covertly shot home movies of the mutilation of innocents (taken by an American missionary) into staged readings from the diaries and letters of a handful of Westerners who stayed behind as the city fell to invaders, and who did their best to save as many lives as they could.
The Americans and Europeans stationed at Nanking established a two-square-mile “safety zone” that incorporated a hospital and a women’s college. Surgeon Bob Wilson (personified here by an understated Woody Harrelson) regarded their decision to help the Chinese as “service of the highest kind,” yet the outside world had no idea of the conditions they fought against. A war crimes tribunal reported 20,000 cases of rape in the first month of the occupation; Chinese women would try to disguise themselves as men, or old women, or don blackface to avoid being gang-raped by Japanese soldiers.
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