Crossing the Line – Men Behind the SunPosted: July 31, 2008
A film of questionable legality, “Men Behind the Sun” (or Hei tai yang 731) is a Hong Kong film produced in 1988 directed by Tun Fei Mou. It set out to chronicle the atrocities committed by the Imperial Japanese Army in World War 2 and managed to infuriate everyone involved.
Tagline: Friendship is friendship; history is history
Synopsis: The Japanese army conquers China in the early stages of World War 2. Many elements of the Imperial Army view the Chinese as lower than humanity and thus useful only as a labor force or test subject. A number of young Japanese boys are sent to Unit 731, headed by Gen. Shiro Ishii. The camp is designed to test out a wide variety of chemical and biological warfare methods, with captured Chinese citizens as the guinea pigs. All manner of horrific experimentation follows, along with casual cruelty to people and animals alike for no real purpose. As the camp nears the cusp of developing a ceramic bomb capable of delivering plague fleas to the front, the US Army nears and the young Japanese soldiers grow increasingly disgusted by the work at the camp. All is not lost with the end of the war though, as the US Army is happy to take on Gen. Ishii and utilize his research for a brief period of the Korean War.
Interesting Fact: The autopsy footage is real, utilizing the body of recently deceased boy from a local hospital.
Objectionable material: Nudity, an actual autopsy, child murder, murder, mutilation, actual animal murder, a woman skinned alive, Asian people, Asian on Asian violence, animal on animal violence, a dismissive view of human life, racism, human target practice, anal explosion, crucifixion, vehicular manslaughter, rats on fire
Disturbing Quote: A small rat can beat a cat. Fleas and germs can defeat bombers and guns. This is… the basic theory behind Squadron 731. It is also my philosophy.
Oh god NSFW:
Screaming Girl: Men Behind the Sun was my introduction to the war atrocities committed by the Japanese during World War II. In theory I should have known about them. They were probably mentioned in a few of my history classes. However, I was never good at history and as we learned last week when I didn’t write my Coal Black and the Sebben Dwarfs column I often choose not to listen when people are talking. Unfortunately no amount of trained zoning out could help me avoid the movie Men Behind the Sun.
I can proudly say that I lived up to my Blurred Productions pseudonym while watching this movie. I can also say that MBRFT and Psycho Larry were shockingly kind enough to allow me to close my eyes and in fact warn me about certain scenes. In total I would say that I had my eyes closed for about three quarters of the film.
What I did see through my fingers was an autopsy being performed on a live prepubescent boy, a woman getting her arms ripped off and a cat being eaten by rats. I will add that if there is one thing that bothers me more than pointless animal cruelty and child abuse, its rats. Other than the horrific scenes the story was boring. The pee purifying machine was mildly amusing only because the bad guy drank pee (and apparently I’m nine years old).
Other movies have successfully portrayed war atrocities without being gratuitous. This movie though successful in shocking the viewer did a poor job in actually making a point. What the Japanese did to the Chinese was horrible and wrong and should never in any situation be repeated. But showing exactly that only makes the director look as sick and twisted as the people running these experimentation units. The same point could be made by tastefully cutting away as the boy walks into the autopsy room, or after dropping the cat into a bin of rats. Three minutes of visual torture does not make you look like an artist, it makes you look like a bad person. A bad person who deserves to drink unpurified pee.
Mind Fuckability Rating: I’m thinking twice about that trip to Tokyo
MBRFT: What better way to pay tribute to the victims of Japanese war atrocities than to graphically depict said atrocities on film. “Men Behind the Sun” joins a long line of films in this series that meant well and instead became a poor exercise in exploitation and bad taste. Spielberg had to walk a really fine line with “Schindler’s List,” assuring he would capture the horror of the Holocaust tastefully and with respect to its victims. T.F. Mou trades in the subtle dignity of black & white for buckets of bright red blood and pours them over the audience.
I especially enjoyed his embrace of metaphor for emotional impact. He compares the Japanese abuse of Chinese prisoners to the ravaging of a kitten by a hoard of rats. And if that’s hard to visualize, then we get to see it re-enacted with an actual kitten and hoard of blood-thirsty rats (and, despite what Screaming Girl and Psycholarry say, they totally killed that kitten). But don’t worry, the rats get their comeuppance: they are burned alive later in the movie. Maybe that’s supposed to be a metaphor for Hiroshima; more likely, they bought all those rats and had to get rid of them.
A lot of the most violent scenes I didn’t mind. A man’s anus being blown out in a pressure chamber and a woman having the skin on her hands boiled off would be perfectly at home in the kind of campy horror flicks I watch all the time. But this is supposed to be an indictment of factually-based war crimes, and it’s subsequently reduced to an over-the-top splatter film. This movie makes me mad at the director, not the Japanese.
And in easily the most tasteless scene featured in any film we’ve seen so far, we get actual autopsy footage of a young boy used as cutaways during the simulated murder of a child. Morality issues aside, that’s just plain lazy. They created a fairly convincing de-skinning with special effects just a couple scenes earlier. Was this really necessary? Mou must have realized that children are dying everyday in China and no one is profiting from it. Problem solved. And the fact that this is somehow legal in Hong Kong, makes me think Hong Kong law has more holes in it than a freshly rat-ravaged kitten.
PsychoLarry: If there’s one thing I’ve learned from watching controversial films made by Asian people is that they don’t shy away from anything. What would never even be considered for release in America gets through in Hong Kong apparently despite laws to the contrary. Now I’m a big fan of eliminating censorship, and for the most part I applaud that kind of thinking. What I don’t agree with is the sort of thing that Men Behind the Sun does.
Ripping off arms, stepping on babies, bombing crucified prisoners, even dissecting a dead body, none of that really bothers me from a moral standpoint. All of that was produced by special effects, or an operation on a child that had already died; something you could see in any medical college in the world. Then the director figures he can save some special effects money by feeding a real cat to real rats (despite my belief that it was faked, it appears a real cat was indeed fed to a room full of rats) then setting those rats on fire. For a movie that works to criticize the Japanese Army’s disregard for life, the filmmaker took a pretty awful stance on life himself. Outside of shock value the animal cruelty only worked to undermine the thematic thrust of the film and make everyone involved look worse for it.
If it were a case of a well made film involving a bit of material I don’t agree with, I’d step right up and defend it (or at least be flippant and humorous about it). “The Dark Knight” for instance has Batman throwing dogs down a stairwell, but it’s a damn fine movie, so what the hell. But “Men Behind the Sun” is just a series of dull dialog sections punctuated by the occasional horrific violence. Every attempt it makes to teach a lesson or drive home a point is dulled by the boring story and mediocre acting, then wiped out by some unneeded real abuse to another person or animal. Save yourself some anguish and watch a real documentary on the Rape of Nanking instead. You’ll be smarter for it, and won’t be supporting poor filmmaking and animal cruelty.
-Ho boy, everyone was pretty down this week. Perhaps we’ll be more chipper next week when we look at the first modern porn film, “Deep Throat”!