Iris Chang: The Rape of Nanking

Starring Olivia Cheng. Rated PG. Plays Saturday, November 17, and Thursday, November 22, at the Ridge Theatre

As its title suggests, Iris Chang: The Rape of Nanking is like two separate documentaries bundled into one bulky package. One is a biography of the Chinese-American author of The Rape of Nanking (Iris Chang hit the bestseller list with her account of the Japanese massacres of Chinese civilians in 1937-'38 and later committed suicide at age 36). The other is an assemblage of witness accounts and historical footage retracing the long-buried atrocities at Nanking, a place where scholars now believe more people were slaughtered than in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.

The idea is that we can discover the horrors of history in much the same way this movie's heroine did, and in Chang's most unforgettable scenes, filmmakers Bill Spahic and Anne Pick travel to China to collect gripping accounts by survivors as they stand amid the sites where it all happened. As Claude Lanzmann showed with his epic 1985 holocaust documentary Shoah, firsthand accounts of atrocities need little embellishment to create emotional power. Here, in the graphic detail that typified Chang's book, aging Nanking residents recall such savagery as a bayonetted baby boy nursing at his dying mother's breast and Japanese soldiers gang-raping a seven-months-pregnant aunt. The filmmakers, like Chang did, balance it out with accounts by Japanese soldiers, academics, and even Japanese deniers.

Chang's bestseller was the first English-language book on the topic, and she turns out to be a compelling figure all on her own. Spahic and Pick mix insights from her friends and family with TV interviews that show Chang's determination and deep empathy. With such strong existing footage, you have to wonder: despite the obvious talent of B.C. actor Olivia Cheng, why do we need dramatizations? Whether it's the sight of Cheng's Chang walking pensively on the beach or crumpling up a bit of hate mail, the scenes feel literal, extraneous, and occasionally corny. This is not to diminish the heroic work Chang did in her life. It's just that, as Shoah proved, a person's own words are often stronger without adornment.

Links: Interview with Iris Chang: Rape of Nanking filmmakers Anne Pick and Bill Spahic
Iris Chang: The Rape of Nanking official site