Thursday, 13 October 2011
Men Behind the Sun (film review)
It features actual animal mutilation, intense gore effects and scenes in which real dead bodies (known as cadavers) are used. The characters are all either clinical scientists, dispassionate soldiers, or wide eyed, tortured peasants. The film is tasteless and disturbing, but as a window into the depravities of humanity and man's fetish-like need to purify his art of killing, it is very powerful.
The film follows a batch of new Youth Army recruits as they are integrated into Camp 731's way of life. Through their eyes, we're given a tour of the workings of the camp. The film's sadness comes not only from the acts of torture, which these young men witness, but for their gradual loss of innocence, as they see what their fellowmen are capable of. In a sense, the audience become these recruits, and when the film is over, we weep, our own innocence having been lost.
The film portrays some of the saddest and most harrowing sequences you are likely to see. In all my years of film-watching, only "Salo" so shook me up. It oozes a sick atmosphere of pain and suffering. But this isn't the cloying, teary eyed suffering of "Schindler's List" or the peekaboo horrors of "Saving Private Ryan" or even the painful surrealism of "Come and See". This is simply a clinical show reel of death. It is about men conducting experiments on other human beings. Human beings whom they view as being rats. Animals beneath them.
And this is the film's most powerful statement. Once you stop viewing your enemy as "human" you become a monster. You dissect and inflict pain upon him as if he were a mere lab rat. You bomb his villages and kill his family because he means nothing to you. He is beneath you, a sub species, an animal, and you are free to slaughter and do with him as you please.
We can draw parallels to the European view of Africans during the slave trade. The black man is not a human, he is an animal, and we are free to abuse him. Similarly, in the eyes of the Japanese, the Chinese man is not a human, he is an animal. In the eyes of the West, the Arab is not a human, he is an animal. In the eyes of the Nazis, the Jew is not a human, he is a dirty animal.
To justify their own barbarianism, world leaders constantly demote their enemies. They make them out to be mere dogs, and then proceed to slaughter them like dogs.
Some of the film's "graphic" scenes now look dated and staged, while others look incredibly realistic, with real corpses and real blood and dismemberment. Mous' direction is flat and isn't anything spectacular. It's simply the subject matter and his willingness to focus on the gore in a matter-of-fact manner which makes the film compelling.
Character development is non existent, yet we carry on watching, because, like a bad car accident, we want to see more. We want the scientists to lead us to that next room. Do we watch because man is innately curious or does something darker draw us?
Some of the horror scenes are truly stomach churning. In one sequence, a Chinese woman is taken out into the snow, has ice water dumped on her arms until they freeze solid. She is then taken back inside and has her arms dipped in hot water. When she takes them out, the General pulls the skin and muscle right off. In another sequence, we see a man put into a decompression chamber. The pressure is steadily increased until he shoots his intestines out of his anus. It's disgusting, but gets even more disturbing when you learn that Mou used a real cadaver for the scene. That was a real corpse shooting out real intestines.
Later on, we see a young mute boy lured into an operating theatre, drugged, then autopsied while he is still alive. The body here is a real human corpse as well. And then there's the famous scene with the rats, in which literally thousands of starving rats attack and consume a cat.
The film was assaulted by Chinese critics upon release, and labled a snuff film and exploitation movie. But the time is now right for a re-evaluation. We've become desensitized and can now "stomach" what Mao want's to show us. What's ironic is that as man modernises and progresses he becomes desensitized to these horrors. Surely our tolerance for horror should lessen as we become more advanced. But no, these things don't shock us as they should anymore. Indifference is always proportionate to empathy.