artistic duo RongRong & Inri in front of their home in Chaochangdi, Beijing
Believe in your humanity, against all the evidence
A few days ago I discovered an album from 2004 by artistic duo RongRong(China) & Inri (Japan), 榮榮&映里, the influential photographic husband and wife team who have shaped contemporary photography in China and around the world. OK, go back and read the sentence again and tell me what the unusual bit is. Yep, that’s right. He is Chinese and she is Japanese.
My memory flashed back to a haunting night in a south-Chinese metropolis not so long ago, an event that still puzzles me until this day.
I was visiting my family at that time. One evening a school friend phoned to invite me to a dinner party with more friends from our shared past. After the dinner, my friends encouraged me to go to a night café with them despite the curfew at the compound where I was staying. I followed them. At the café I suddenly realized there were only men left. What happened next was bizarre to say the least. My old school friends asked me if they could gang rape me. Well, I’m glad you asked. No, they were not drunk. The reason for their perplexing request arose from the knowledge of a novel of mine, in which I treated the Rape of Nanjing in a “morally ambiguous” way. I didn’t choose the Chinese side, and that is wrong. That night I had had “eye-in-eye” contact with my nation’s past and for the first time I felt that history walked around in flesh and blood. Justice is revenge. After nearly eighty years, for the Chinese men the only possibility to maintain their male pride is to make the guizi pay back by raping their women, every single one of them, including me the anti-patriotic.
How I got out of the weirdly fascinating as well as threatening situation that night is not our topic today, apparently. Instead, I would like to invite you to watch a goosebump movie.
Nanking! Nanking!, or City of Life and Death, is the 3rd feature by Lu Chuan. Lu is independent and courageous. He never flirts with Zhang Yimou-ism (Raise the Red Lantern). He is brutal and brilliant and his cinematic narrative offers a lifelike, provocative ride.
The background of Lu Chuan’s story is World War 2, which started in Asia. Troubled by a long term economic slump, Japan’s military regime sought a solution and found a problem. The deluding oxygen was to subjugate China in order to propel the country into a future of expansionism. In 1931, Emperor Hiroshito bypassed the parliamentary procedure and gave direct order to the Japanese army to invade Manchuria. However, Japan would still wait until July 1937, when the carefully staged Marco Polo Bridge Incident took place near Beiping. Japan officially declared war against China and the rest of the world. In November the Imperial Army took Shanghai. One month later, Nanking, the then Chinese capital was abandoned by the Nationalist government.
Nanking! Nanking! follows the days of life and death of several people, including fictive characters and the historical “Good Nazi of Shanghai” John Rabe. But this film is not meant to be Chinese Schindler’s List. Lu Chuan opted for a brave perspective to tell a story never told before. Through the eyes of a young Japanese soldier, “everyman” Kadogawa, we are taken to the macabre killing field of the Massacre of Nanking, a.k.a. the Rape of Nanking. The camera work is intently sober and sedate with a larger purpose in mind, importantly and impressively transporting the helpless, horrified onlookers to another time and place where everything is so UNBEARABLY “real”. Murder, theft, arson, mutilation, gang rape, stabbing bayonet and long bamboo stick into infants…But then, all of a sudden, the camera cuts to the military camp on the bank of the River Yangtze. Young men, hardly men but boys, singing and dancing and talking about their home. “My mom’s o-mochi is delicious,” tells a soldier bathing at the river. “And Tokyo is so damn nice!” answers his friend washing his mate’s back with cherry blossom-sweetness in his voice. These are man killers, slaughterers we eyewitnessed at work just a minute ago. How does o-mochi taste to them!?
When released in 2009, Nanking! Nanking! turned out to be a massive success – much to the surprise of the director. Shortly afterwards Lu received death threats via email intended for him and his family. His fault was he dared to make a Japanese soldier feel like a human being.
Is history clear? Yes, it is. Is history useful? It’s a hard thought.
Watch a fragment:
南京! 南京! (City of Life and Death)
Drama, History, War