Documentary on Rape of Nanking reopens Chinese rift with Japan

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A chilling American-made documentary that includes eyewitness accounts of atrocities by Japanese troops during the Rape of Nanking 70 years ago has opened in Beijing and once again exposed the fraught relations between the two Asian giants.

The Japanese ground assault on the former capital of China began on 10 December 1937 and the city fell on 13 December, the signal for the start of the six-week killing spree known as the Rape of Nanking.

The Chinese say upwards of 300,000 people were killed, although the 1948 Tokyo war crimes tribunal found Japanese troops killed some 150,000.

The incident remains a huge stumbling block in relations between China and Japan even today, and many in China feel the Japanese have failed properly to atone for atrocities committed during the invasion. A group of 100 Japanese parliamentarians prompted a furious reaction in China last month when they said documents from their government's archives indicated only about 20,000 were killed.

As far as the Chinese are concerned, this is the equivalent of denying that the Holocaust in Europe took place. "The crime and hatred of Japanese militarism left a deep scar on the Chinese people ... and the memory will never fade away," said Gao Feng, the president of CCDS, one of the film's co-distributors in China, before a screening at a theatre in western Beijing.

Chinese were tortured, set on fire, buried alive, decapitated, bayoneted and shot en masse, and between 20,000 and 80,000 Chinese women and girls of all ages were raped, forced into sex slavery or murdered.

The 90-minute film, Nanking, co-directed by the Oscar-winning documentary director Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman, opened in Beijing this week and goes on general release in more than 100 cinemas from Saturday, which coincides with the 70th anniversary of Japan's full-scale invasion of China.

The documentary, the first of a wave of films to show this year about the incident, mixes archive footage and readings by actors such as Woody Harrelson, Stephen Dorff, Jürgen Prochnow and Mariel Hemingway about a group of foreigners who protected Chinese residents in Nanking from Japanese invaders. Given that the Chinese state broadcaster CCTV is one of the co-producers, local audiences are likely to find the film sympathetic to the Chinese view of the massacre.

The production team insists it received script approval but no interference with editorial content from the Chinese government.

Nanking was produced by Ted Leonsis, formerly the vice chairman of AOL, who said he was moved to make the picture by Iris Chang's bookThe Rape of Nanking. Chang committed suicide in 2004. Mr Leonsis urged Chinese people to see it "by any means necessary. Free on the internet, even on pirated disc."

The film uses 500 hours of footage and interviews with survivors and includes images of bomb-shattered streets, children's bodies piled high and gruesome testimonies of rape by victims. It also includes confessions by Japanese soldiers.

The documentary also features film footage shot by John Gillespie Magee, an Episcopal pastor in Nanjing from 1912 to 1940, who recorded the massacre and rescued many Chinese people. His film was used in the Allied tribunal after the war as one of the primary sources to document the atrocities.

He collaborated with the "Good German of Nanking", John Rabe, a card-carrying Nazi Party member and Siemens engineer, to set up a Red Cross exclusion zone that protected tens of thousands of residents from the Japanese onslaught.

The war against Japan remains a hugely political issue in China, and generally, the Chinese government is keen that any movies about Nanking's past serve nationalist interests, while at the same time doing nothing to irk Japan, on whose trade it is reliant.

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