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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Men Behind the Sun (1988) Review

CAMP 731 1988 aka MEN BEHIND THE SUN aka HEI TAIYANG (literal translation: BLACK SUN; also the English title of the sequel)

Pictures coming soon...

Directed by Mou Tun-fei

A group of young Japanese boys coerced into becoming soldiers in the Japanese Army see numerous atrocities and graphic experiments performed on Chinese citizens during WW2.

One of the most, if not the most, uncompromisingly brutal and sadistic movie ever made. All the more repellent in that it really happened. Director Mou was very brave to attempt such a film. He received numerous death threats from unknown parties when he traveled to Japan to lecture young Japanese students about the incidents that occurred to the Chinese populace in the late 1930's. Schools in Japan had their books altered leaving little mention of the incidents as well as many Japanese citizens claiming said atrocities never happened chalking it up to propaganda fables.

Without doubt one of the most difficult films to sit through. After I saw it the one and only time, I thought about the film for days afterwards. It seriously depressed me in a way no other film had done before. The only other film that ever came close to this movies power is CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1979). Other films have left me feeling dirty and somewhat mentally violated after viewing them, but nothing like this film. The constant reminder that these and unbelievably far worse acts of barbarism actually took place only re-enforces Mou's power as a director. What is even more astounding is that in light of what is shown, this film only barely scratches the surface of what happened to the Chinese during this tumultuous time in history.

One of the most harrowing scenes in all of cinema is found here and it's also a scene that caused much debate over the value of Mou's film; much like the intense scrutiny Ruggero Deodato found placed against him when CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1979) saw release. The scene involves the Japanese doctor demonstrating "strength in numbers". A white cat is thrown into a room filled with thousands of starving rats. It takes what seems like an eternity for the helpless animal to finally succumb to his doom. The cat fights valiantly to survive, but again, as the doctor states... "strength in numbers..." in reference to the impending attack on America by the Japanese. The camera never flinches away from this most despicable geek show sequence. In fact, the shots of the cat in its death throes are the most difficult to stomach. This scene was removed for the films UK release as well as other prints around the world.

Another vexing scene concerns the live vivisection of a little boy. What makes this scene especially distressing is that the little boy was a recently deceased cadaver donated from his family specially for the film. What is most amazing is the boy's resemblance to the child actor portraying the kid who is used in the ghastly experiment.

The film itself is a cavalcade of cruelty and despair showcasing the many tortures and vicious experiments the Japanese "doctors" performed on their Chinese captives which they called "Maruta's" which means "material" or "log". They didn't consider their test subjects human and subjected them to many horrifying ordeals. These experiments dealt with freezing and extreme heat, gas and decompression chamber tests and testing of various diseases such as bubonic plague among other barbarous acts. The plague was also injected into flies concealed inside balloons which they were trying to unleash into the air and onto foreign soil. Before the means of doing this had been figured out, the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Of all the past Naziploitation movies, none of them hold a candle to this film. What Hitler did was minor (not to make light of those heinous crimes) when compared to the savagery perpetrated on Chinese, British, Australian, Russian and American soldiers and citizens during the war. It is a shame that this dark and gruesome time in man's history is not more widely known. Author Iris Chang wrote a NY Times Bestseller entitled, THE RAPE OF NANKING: THE FORGOTTEN HOLOCAUST OF WW2. The book dealt mostly with the (now more widely known) Nanking Massacre and only occasionally touched on the devilish experiments of Camp 731. The Nanking Massacre is covered in Mou's equally nasty sequel, BLACK SUN: THE NANKING MASSACRE (1995). Mysteriously, Mrs. Chang died on November 9, 2004 of a self-inflicted gun shot wound on a rural road in Los Gatos, California.

Realizing it was a film of great importance, Mou Tun-fei had much trouble getting the film released in Hong Kong. Eventually, it did see release there but he was not allowed to advertise it in any way. No trailer, no poster; only the title on the marquee. The film was highly controversial overseas. The real-life accounts were at odds with the all too real animal violence seen which brought much speculation to the very realistic effects sequences. Considering the circumstances surrounding the real cadaver used, speculation arose that the effects scenes may have been more than just that.

Mou would return to the subject matter with his 1995 sequel, BLACK SUN: THE NANKING MASSACRE (1995). This film actually utilized real footage of victims. This footage was smuggled out of Nanking by a sympathetic Nazi (of all people); a mister John Rabe who had the footage hidden inside the threads of a jacket. This footage would end up as a propaganda film shown in US movie theaters during the war. Mou originally envisioned a trilogy but in lieu of the controversy, death threats and difficulty getting the films made, the third film never saw fruition (at least not yet).

However, there were two unrelated films that were released in HK proclaiming to be sequels to the original MEN BEHIND THE SUN. These were MEN BEHIND THE SUN 2: LABORATORY OF THE DEVIL 1992) and MEN BEHIND THE SUN 3: NARROW ESCAPE (1994). Both, believe it or not, directed by that Chinese Jess Franco, Godfrey Ho.

Mou Tun-fei got his start directing Shaw Brothers movies. He was one of a few up and coming New Wave directors at Shaw's at the time. He directed what is called the Chinese version of SALO (1975), LOST SOULS (1980). Mou also directed one half of the Shaw horror anthology, HAUNTED TALES (1980). He also directed the gruesome kung fu thriller, A DEADLY SECRET (1980). These films would foreshadow where Mou would be a handful of years down the road. As it stands today, MEN BEHIND THE SUN (1988) is a grueling and dark testament of man's inhumanity to man that only grazes the surface of what was, in real life, far more cruel and ferociously sadistic historical horrors. A time that hopefully, will never be repeated.

This review is representative of the World Video DVD. There is an English dub in addition to Cantonese and Mandarin audio tracks.

DVD availability: World Video, Japan Shock (Netherlands; region 0)


Will Errickson said...

Fantastic post. Years ago I worked in a restaurant with a couple other guys who were "into" movies like this and we traded bootleg videotapes all the time. This, Cannibal Holocaust, and The Flower of Flesh & Blood were the big hits, so to speak. I think about this movie a lot too and kinda wish I didn't. It's that troublesome.

venoms5 said...

Hey, Will! I hear ya. I didn't have any friends near me who were into these movies, so I had no one to trade with! I did have a group of friends that would get together to watch Shaw Brothers movies when I'd occasionally get a few that were more complete than what passed on television.

I plan to get some pics put up for this one day, it's just the film depresses me to no end! I plan on including it and its official sequel in one of the 'Sins of Celluloid' entries.

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