Thursday, August 7, 2014


"Tunnel Warfare"(1965) set the standard for the anti-Japan dramas that followed

Chinese TV in 2014 was ordered to step up the airing of "patriotic" drama

China has a long tradition of producing war movies for propaganda purposes; the war against Japan (kangri zhanzheng)  the war of liberation against the Kuomintang (jiefang douzheng) and the costly Korean War (kangmei yuanchao) in which America was the ultimate enemy. In the 1950's, when the US loomed large as an enemy, Korea was the hot topic for war films, while in the 1960's, an inward-looking decade marred by mass starvation and relentless political campaigns, few films were made. The buzzwords of Sino-Japanese frictions today --Nanjing Massacre, comfort women, Diaoyudao-- were conspicuous by their absence from film and media reports of those decades.

The startling upswing in the production and consumption of anti-Japan narratives set during China's war of resistance against Japan will be examined in the context of similarly-themed productions that came before. Looking back on films and TV dramas made at discreet points in decades past one is tempted to link such production to the zeitgeist of the era and indeed, films must need reflect something of the environment they were made in, --no film is made in a vacuum. A more difficult question is whether or not films, especially widely-viewed war films also can be said to have influenced their era in a way that touches on real issues of war and peace, such as in nudging foreign policy or popular readiness for war. 

The debate over the influence of films on society is ongoing and unresolved. In the US, critics of the violence on TV and in film are usually answered by defenders of the industry with a variation of "art doesn't hurt people."  The argument is that film is entertainment, a cathartic experience at best, like that of good stage drama, and only very young children or feeble-minded adults would mistake art for life and vice versa.  

The prevailing Hollywood view, which is worth keeping in mind when trying to assess the influence of anti-Japan dramas on a tense bilateral relationship, is that art is art and shouldn't be over-interpreted as an inspiration to action. But movies do move people, if only in mysterious ways. Marilyn Young argues "In the Combat Zone", that filmic nostalgia for war isn't just entertainment but is also "about salvaging war as a fruitful human activity. It is also intended to hold a mirror to our own corrupt times." Or as Ian Buruma wrote in the Guardian after seeing the Michael Bay production "Pearl Harbor" (2001) the message of the film seems to be that "we should feel nostalgia for the times when dying for the nation was called for." Both these observations are applicable to the earnest but hackneyed production and promotion of anti-Japan war dramas in contemporary China as it struggles with the problems of peacetime ennui, ideological drift, immense corruption and nostalgia for more heroic times.

Given the plastic and mutable narrative structure of drama, a war film designed to meet the criteria of both the censor and the propagandist may fail at its intended purpose and instead, in the manner of drama in general, find a reception primarily as escapist entertainment and not something to be taken as the literal truth. In searching for the most potent media influences on popular opinion, drama would appear at best to be a poor cousin to newspapers, news broadcasts and history texts, since it makes no pretension of being the literal truth. The symbolic weight of fictional storytelling accounts for a lasting emotional power that lingers and influences and cannot be easily dismissed, but it is rarely a serious thinking guide on how to understand current events.

Bearing these points in mind, it is worth to review the celluloid influences and precursors to the current boom of drama set during the Chinese war of resistance against Japan. A few memorable films were produced just before the chaos of the Cultural Revolution broke loose, after which China film production all but ground to a halt except for Jiang Qing-approved "yangbanxi" or revolutionary opera productions.
"Tunnel Warfare" (1964) tells the story of a
village militia that outfoxes the Japanese
invaders by literally going underground.

A couple of well-crafted anti-Japan war movies stand out as celluloid landmarks of 1960's film;  "Landmine Warfare" (1962) and "Tunnel Warfare" (1965). The PLA-produced classic "Tunnel Warfare," set during the war of resistance against Japan, is considered to be one of the most widely-viewed films in the history of cinema, no doubt in part because it was deemed politically acceptable at a time when most films were banned for being too decadent or too foreign or otherwise politically doubtful. Chinese old enough to remember those days of privation are quick to recall the popularity of "Tunnel Warfare" because its sturdy dramatic narrative leavened with moment of humor about peasants combatting Japanese aggression at the village level was one of the few really watchable entertainments of the era. Indeed the fealty to this film is so great that when a remake was produced a few years ago, critics savaged it for "historical distortion" even though the original film was a martial fairy tale in its own right.

"Tunnel Warfare" (2013) is a recent remake that
has come under fire for "distorting history"

As China emerged from the Mao-induced trauma of the Cultural Revolution in the mid-1970's, at that bewildering juncture when the disgraced, recently deceased PLA military commander Lin Piao was paired with Confucius as an evil figure to struggle against,  the limited palette of films on offer tended towards the didactic. Communist morality tales about the hard, victorious struggle for liberation were among the few productions that navigated the needle's eye of politically acceptability. Scant attention was paid to Japan, and US "crimes against humanity" from the Korean War period were brushed under the red carpet that greeted Nixon on his pathbreaking trip to Beijing. The decade closed with the political triumph of Deng Xiaoping and downgrading of the Maoists, while critics like Wei Jingsheng were thrown in jail as a reminder that a kinder, gentler China was not without a new political line. The decade closed in the cinemas with a Japan wartime drama "Anxious to Return" (1979).

In the peaceful and increasingly prosperous 1980's, by and large a tranquil decade during which the population, still in recovery from an overdose of political chaos, could celebrate the non-political joys of everyday life. In those days, now regarded as "golden years" from the point of view of contemporary China,  nostalgic films, nuanced dramas and feel-good films dominated the market, with some notable exceptions in the second half of the decade.  Zhang Yimou's brutal anti-Japan war drama "Red Sorghum" (1987) brilliantly shot by master cinematographer Gu Changwei, was a visual feast and a melee of the mind. It left censors scratching their heads and not a few film viewers uncomfortable, but it signaled a triumph for artistic freedom.

Two notable international co-productions dealing with the Sino-Japan War made during the same time period, when the leftist campaign against spiritual pollution failed to rouse a still politically exhausted populace were the "Last Emperor" (1987) and "Empire of the Sun" (1987). The two co-productions, the first filmed in Beijing, the second in Shanghai were unprecedented in scope, scale and access afforded to foreign filmmakers. Both films had Japanese actors in speaking parts, though large formations of Japanese soldiers were played by Chinese extras in uniform.

The "Last Emperor" had a brief tussle with political censorship, not at Beijing's behest but in Tokyo. Brief but brutal archival newsreel scenes from the Shanghai Incident and Nanjing Massacre were cut at the insistence of the Japan film distributor who threw down the gauntlet to producer Jeremy Thomas at a time when Japan was the largest ancillary market in the world. Not unlike the attitude increasingly apparent in China today, self-styled patriots in Bubble-era Japan reckoned that economic power gave them some say, or at least the right to say no.

Both films were generally unflinching in their treatment of sensitive historic issues and would probably be impossible to make today, the former because it required trampling on heritage sites such as the Forbidden City, the latter because of it offered more Japanese characters worthy of emulation than Chinese ones. Given the Japan-admiring idiosyncrasies of JG Ballard's childhood memoir on which "Empire of the Sun" was based, accentuated by the aviation-obsessed director Steven Spielberg who manages to portray a kamikaze pilot in a soft focus and a kind light, and you have an eclectic product sufficiently sympathetic to Japan that it would be impossible to make in China today.

The hinomaru lends itself to artistic appropriation

In the 1990's Chinese television drama serials started to come of age and began to offer real stay-at-home competition to the neighborhood movie theatre. Less than a year after the Tiananmen debacle, CCTV launched the studiously apolitical "Kewang"(1990) which CCTV lauded in its in-house coverage and earned mention on NHK.  The title means "Yearning" and the result was a 51-episode CCTV family drama about tentative hopes and dreams for the future. Around the same time, still chastised and sanctioned by the West, China drew on its Sinitic cultural capital to engage Singapore, Hong Kong and the Chinese diaspora. This was a period that saw the growth of independent Chinese film while Asian co-productions, especially with Hong Kong, also proliferated. Wartime film, "Steel Meets Fire" (1991) starring You Ge, was followed a few years later by the 1995 Hong Kong co-production "Nanjing 1937" This withering look at a tragic chapter of history that has never been forgotten by overseas Chinese but was so broadly ignored as to be a non-issue during the Mao years, can be seen as a gesture of solidarity with ethnic Chinese and furthermore as a brick in the edifice of a  reconstructed, unifying nationalism in the post-Tiananmen period when belief in the party was at an all time low. The Hong Kong involvement not only brought cash and modern special effects, but served to locate Hong Kong, which was due to revert to the mainland in just two years time, firmly in the China camp, historically speaking. This film, tapping the reserves of pan-Chinese anger at documented Japanese abuses during the war period anticipated the revival of popular interest in the events of December 1937,  a trend that would be further codified and spurred on by Iris Chang's influential 1997 book "Rape of Nanking."

Hong Kong-Mainland pioneering co-production on Nanjing Massacre

The year 2000 saw the Anti-Japan War back on the big screen, this time treated as black comedy in Jiang Wen's irreverent "Devils at the Doorstep" (2000). Japanese soldiers, the eponymous devils, were the ostensible enemy but the film upset the censors for its lack of a didactic line, being more about human frailty, cruelty and humor than national identity and ultimate victory in war. It was followed by Feng Xiaoning's film "Purple Sunset" (2001) which is set on the eve of Japan's surrender in 1945.  The PLA-produced "Mountain of Taihang"(2005) draws on the heroic war movie tradition of the early days of the People's Republic to tell the story of Communist legendary commander Zhu De and the exploits of Eighth Route army in its fight against Japanese troops in Shanxi Province.
"Guizi laile" aka "Devils on the Doorstep"

"Zi Ri" or "Purple Sunset" is set at war's end

"Purple Sunset" (2001) directed by Feng Xiaoning, is a film seemingly at odds with itself, given its insistent nationalism despite the emotional bonding of its cross-cultural cast. It tells the story of the sole survivor of a Japanese firing squad, rescued at the last minute by Soviet Army intervention, who goes on to save a Japanese woman who then betrays him. Full of bloody scenes and mass suicides, this dark film has enjoyed a second life on TV during the most recent upswing in Sino-Japan tensions.  

"Nanjing, Nanjing" (2009) by Lu Chuan

"Flowers of War" with "Empire of the Sun's" Christian Bale
The dark, documentary-style massacre epic "Nanjing, Nanjing" (2009) directed by Lu Chuan was a rare sober film that tackled a tough subject to critical acclaim. It capped off a largely frivolous film decade dominated by corny comedy and zany drama. The topic of Nanjing hit the screens again two years later with the much anticipated but somewhat flawed  Zhang Yimou production "Flowers of War" (2011). Based on a novel by Yan Geling, it used the backdrop of the Nanjing Massacre to show Chinese courage, chivalry and fortitude under stress, while also addressing the age-old dichotomy of fallen versus virtuous women. The cool feats of a superhuman Chinese sniper, seemingly a dramatic add-on that was undoubtedly pleasing authorities, and perhaps the popular audience, as a show of Chinese strength, cuts down Japanese marauders one by one, winning small bullet-ridden victories in the midst of an unstoppable massacre. The lone sniper was sufficiently skilled in sharp-shooting to satisfy the pent-up and frustrated desire for revenge denied by the cold facts of the actual historical event.

Sniper film "Cold Steel" (2011) (Biandi Langyan)
"Cold Steel" (2011) a Hong Kong movie built on the winning formula of a "good" sniper in action, played by Tony Leung Ka Fai, pit a Chinese sharpshooter against the Japanese. The shooter's POV action flick found an audience and was sufficiently successful enough to inspire a remake on the mainland.

"The Sino-Japanese War at Sea 1894"(jiawudahaizhan) released in 2012 is an unusual epic film about a key turning point in East Asian fortunes, namely China's humiliating loss at sea in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894. Although Japan comes out on top in this chapter of history, the communist party, which has beefed up coverage of this short, sharp war for the 120th anniversary this year, finds in the 1894 conflict an urgent lesson about the importance of preparedness and willingness to adopt the latest technology, especially when dealing with Japan. The Chinese naval men are portrayed as heroically as possible within loose historic confines, but they lose and everyone knows they lose, but it's the lesson that counts. The film has been criticized for exploiting the contemporary Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute, which was a non-issue in the First Sino-Japanese War, by conspicuously inserting the words "Diaoyudao" in its posters, as if to suggest the next battle at sea is China's to win. The populist ad campaign, poorly-conceived at best, also makes mention of Iwo Jima for some inexplicable reason, and the Spratly Islands too, ostensibly in reference to current maritime tensions.

 "Diaoyudao" is anachronistically included in the PR posters promoting "1894"  

Ever since Sino-Japanese tensions at sea erupted to a feverish pitch due to the Diaoyu/Senkaku conflict of 2010, one can detect in Chinese war dramas the clumsy hand of politics influencing art, as the posters for the 2013 film about battling Japan at sea demonstrates. Before that, despite periodic flare-ups, such as the 2005 Beijing anti-Japan demonstration about revisionist textbooks,  Sino-Japanese war films were mostly idiosyncratic choices of independent-minded directors interested in exploiting history for dramatic purposes rather than state-orchestrated works designed to score political points. Directors such as Zhang Yimou and Jiang Wen didn't flinch in dramatizing Japan's historic ravaging of China, but their work was individualistic and nuanced enough to disconcert the authorities at the time. Such "classic" films get considerable play on television now, however, so much so that it seems that programming authorities tempted to read them as anti-Japan works, even though they are more emphatically films about the folly of war. Both directors have gone on the record to insist that singling out the Japanese was not their aim in making such films.

For all the innovative special effects, celebrity casting, and clever plot twists, very few films in the anti-Japan genre show up as box office leaders, a point driven home by a 2009 visit to a large Beijing multiplex for a viewing of "Nanjing, Nanjing." There I waited on a long line to buy tickets, only to discover the theatre was empty. The crowds were packed in to see the latest smash-em'-up smack-down from the "Transformers" franchise in the theatre next door. The sound for the more popular film was jacked up loud enough to overpower the soundtrack of the Nanjing film playing in an almost empty hall.

While Chinese audiences in the past were no strangers to war-against-Japan dramas, which on average appeared at the cinema every two or three years, and later years got regular replay on television, there has been no time like the current media cacophony of competing, overlapping provincial stations putting similar product on air all at once. It is now possible to view dozens of anti-Japan dramas every day, day after day, on free-to-air and public cable TV in China. Even allowing that provincial viewers enjoy fewer channels than the average viewer in Beijing,  there is clearly a glut of such material on the market.

One problem with the calculated marriage of party dictates and market tastes is that the proliferation of wartime drama makes Japan a dirty word. The practice of calling the Japanese "guizi" or devils at every twist and turn may be justified in the sense that the term is based on actual linguistic practices that arose during war, but wars, almost by definition, are about demonizing the enemy. While bearing witness to make-believe killings of Japanese on the screen has not been shown to incite the public to violence, hearing Japanese referred to as "guizi" every other minute on TV does have real-world consequences; the slang is catchy and gets repeated thoughtlessly even if the film is otherwise forgettable. The rise of the "g" word is partly a reflection of conscious political antipathy towards Japan, but it's also a lazy habit born of too much TV viewing.

Japan, too, has produced numerous war dramas for cinema and TV audiences, but more often about the Pacific War, with its kamikaze heroics over contested sea and air, than the China War. Perhaps the search for a heroic narrative  is part of the reason for this, since no amount of white-washing can alter the unpalatable fact that Japan entering China was a war of invasion. Unlike Chinese films about being victim to Japan's predations, and the revenge fantasies that follow, the narratives of Japan's films tend towards elevating the heroism and devotion of soldiers fighting a lost cause.

Take for example the Ishihara Shintaro-scripted, "For Those We Love" (Ore-kimi) 2007 or "The Men of the Yamato"' (Otoko tachi no Yamato) 2005 and it is plain that the story line is not about revenge or demonizing the enemy, but whitewashing the record and glorifying Japan's own fighters. 
Kamikaze suicide bombers in " For Those We Love," scripted by Ishihara Shintaro
In a similar vein, two recent Japanese films focus on the Mitsubishi Zero with abject awe, keeping the focus on its upward arc as a symbol of soaring technical prowess and courage rather than as a gloomy suicide-bomb machine that it ultimately became in the eyes of Japan's foes.  "The Wind Also Rises" (Kaze Tachinu) 2013 by anime maestro Miyazaki Hayao, lauds the designers of the Zero, the emphasis being on the joy of invention and flight, while "The Eternal Zero" (Eien no Zero) 2013, an Abe Shinzo favorite that was quickly denounced by critics as nationalistic propaganda, glorifies a kamikaze pilot for his spirit of ultimate sacrifice, as a didactic lesson for today's youth. 
"The Eternal Zero" glorifies a patriotic Kamikaze pilot

Even more controversially, "The Truth about Nanjing" (nankin no shinjitsu) 2007 by Mizushima Satoru, released during Abe Shinzo's first term as prime minister and acclaimed by then Governor of Tokyo, Ishihara Shintaro, is a revisionist trampling on China's holy ground of national victimology. The film is all about Japan's propaganda wars with China, yet interestingly, it was said to have been made in reaction to an American film rather than any of the Chinese productions on the topic.

The US-produced "Nanjing" 2007 directed by Bill Gutentag and starring Woody Harrelson and Mariel Hemingway was not a box office success but it upset Japanese rightists who feared Americans were starting to buy into "Chinese propaganda" and see things the wrong way. Released in tense, soul-searching period after China's violent anti-Japan street demonstrations of 2005, it obviously hit a raw nerve. As succinctly expressed in The Truth of Nanjing Massacre, posted on youtube by a Japanese nationalist with the very telling tag "Japanascool" the reason why the US could side with China despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, is that "America needed to find the excuse that dropped atomic bombs. To become 'Hero' American needed to make Japan 'Cruel Villain.'"

Despite China's voluminous output of Japan war drama, including some pointed productions about the endlessly controversial Nanjing Massacre, such as "Nanjing 1937" and "Nanjing, Nanjing," Japanese filmmakers intent on "telling it like it was" seem to be more obsessed with contesting American versions of history than those of China. Most Japan-made war movies focus on the latter stages of the war when it became a battle in air and at sea between US and Japan. Japan's extremist defenders of the there-was-no-Nanjing-massacre revisionist bent of thought chose to go after Ted Gutentag's US production "Nanjing" rather than Chinese tellings of the story. 

Art, even bad art, is art and news, even bad news is news and hopefully the twain will never meet. If any of the urgent, simmering issues that pit Japan against China at land, sea, or in the air should explode into hot conflict at a time when the mass audience is being inundated with demonizing drama, the propagandistic and prejudiced qualities of art may come to influence real world thinking. As lightweight as many of the war dramas might appear in times of peace, at a time of conflict they may be interpreted to take on a more weighty  aspect.

(updated on August 31, 2014)