A documentary by Leon Lee. In English and Mandarin, with English subtitles. Rating unavailable
“There’s a one-in-a-million chance of finding a message in a bottle,” says Julie Keith, an Oregonian who figures in Letter From Masanjia. The title refers to a plea that travelled almost 6,000 miles, from a notorious slave-labour camp in northern China to her suburban Kmart.
Although Letter is seemingly a dark riff on the old “Help, I’m being held prisoner in a Chinese fortune-cookie factory” joke, multiple layers of irony wipe any sweetness away. Pencilled in English and Mandarin, the folded note was attached to a Styrofoam tombstone with a skeleton clutching a blackened cross. You know: for kids! The Keith family sat on that Halloween decoration for two years before opening it, and thus the note’s author, mild-mannered Sun Yi, had already been released by then.
The letter told of torture and death, and asked the finder to contact human-rights organizations. She did that, but no groups showed interest until the story was picked up by local and then national newspapers. That’s where China-born, B.C.–based filmmaker Leon Lee came in. He won a coveted Peabody Award for Human Harvest, his documentary on organ theft. Some say the Chinese government has been exploiting and even killing the followers of Falun Gong, a spiritual and exercise practice based on ancient Chinese principles. Unaligned with any political or religious entities, the fast-growing movement was tolerated until a sudden crackdown in 1999.
Sun Yi was arrested for promoting the practice, and then forced into horrendous work conditions some of his fellow “toymakers” didn’t survive. Lee, who can no longer safely return to China, sought him out and they devised ways to surreptitiously film Sun’s journey to find resolution to this nightmare. The latter, still in Beijing, turned out to be a talented graphic artist, and was able to capture key experiences in deft line drawings, many of which are further animated here.
Sun’s wife was pushed to divorce him, and the time-jumping, 75-minute doc follows their attempts to reconcile, obstructed by events both natural and bureaucratic. The bespectacled subject here is such a benign presence, it’s hard to imagine anyone finding him a threat. So it’s even more disturbing to watch him keep swimming against the tides that carried his bottle in the first place.