Under Review: ‘Iris Chang: The Rape of Nanking’


Beautifully, tenderly rendered, this documentary will bring tears to your eyes.

One of the searing thoughts that comes from Iris Chang, the author of the book upon which this documentary is based, is that “… all human beings have this capacity for this great evil if put in the right social political circumstances. The Rape of Nanking was always something that could happen.”

Chang, like most of us, grew up believing in the basic goodness of people. It is a comforting concept we are reluctant to give up as we age. Even though we become acquainted with Biblical stories of vengeance, historical documents of mass slaughter, racial hatred and personal stories of abuse and violence, most of us still try to twist the facts around to explain how one person can be so incredibly evil towards another.

While writing and speaking on the Nanking tragedy, Chang began her own emotional reaction to the gross insanity she chronicled. She would wake up at noon and write until 3 or 4 in the morning. Her life became transfixed and overcome with the emotions of the stories. In the film, someone says that she wrote them not with her pen but with her heart.

Upon finishing the Nanking story, Chang began working on a non-fiction book documenting the Batan Death March. By this time her hair was falling out and her obsession for her writing was quickly resulting in a deeper depression that her family began to notice.

So it is that the film does not begin with Nanking, but with Chang and the discovery of her car off the side of the road. She killed herself Nov. 9, 2004, when she was the 36-year-old mother of a 2-year old.

It’s difficult to understand her decision when she had a child, a husband, parents, and a successful career doing what she loved. Her mother is still bewildered and shocked.

There is a parallel in this suicide to the cases Chang had been studying. There appears to be this aberrant, inexplicable destructive side to human nature that is beyond understanding and beyond control.

Chang tirelessly researched the Japanese invasion of China which is the focus of the film. It began in 1931 with Japanese presence in Manchuria. By 1937, Japan and China were in a full-scale war. First Beijing was captured and then Shanghai. The city of Nanking was invaded on Dec. 12, 1937.

Chang describes the training of Japanese soldiers at that time. Part of their inculcation to following commands involved humiliation. The soldiers were continually slapped at the behest of a senior officer for trumped up infractions, simply to break the ego of the soldier and assure complete and total submission to military domination.

When the Japanese entered Nanking they were ordered to take no prisoners. This was understood not as leaving the population alone but massacring it. The genocide became an overwhelming job. They were trained on local Chinese how to bayonet a man to death by twisting the sword in the gut. But there were too many Chinese. They tried to knife or shoot them all, but it proved time consuming, tedious and physically difficult, so they set up movie cameras, piled murdered or wounded in long heaps, poured gas on them and lit them with fire.

As Chang pointed out, these men got off easy. The women were another story in the capacity for human degradation and inhumanity.

This documentary does not have a “Schindler’s List” kind of inspirational light, though Chang does detail those who helped hide hundreds of Chinese in their homes. Instead it focuses on raw historical footage and photographs of gross acts of human insane depravity.

Like The Holocaust, like the aftermath of the Battle of Troy, like the Twin Towers inferno, the story of Nanking is one that must be remembered, retold and commemorated. It must be incorporated in history curriculums and honored through public expressions of art.

The biggest reason for knowing and being educated about the inexplicable human capacity for great evil perhaps serves as our biggest deterrent.

Production Credits

Directors: Anne Pick and William Spahic
Writer: Michael Betcherman (written by)
Cast: Olivia Cheng, Iris Chang, Shau-Jin Chang, Ying-Ying Chang, Ignatius Ding, Susan Rabiner, Brett Douglas, Barbara Masin, Duan Yue Ping, Yang Xia Ming, Wang Wei Xing, Xia Shu Qin, Kenji Ono, Lei Gui Ying, Yasuji Kaneko, Jing Sheng Hong, Wu Zheng Xi, Ursula Reinhardt, Jeff Kingston, Joseph Wong, Thenkia Lit, Helen Zia, Katsuichi Honda, Hideaki Kase, Sayoko Yamauchi, Ian Smith.
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2 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. Kat #

    Beautiful review. I read the book and couldn’t bear to see the film.

  2. Sara #

    SOunds quite interesting.