Several days ago, I watched a movie that was recommended by Netflix based on my viewing history and preferences. By now, I realized that period movies fascinate me, predominantly because of the intricacies and the nostalgic appeal of the costumes and the epochal events surrounding them. It also seems that history, including the biographical and fictitious stories based on it appeal greatly to me. This time around, the movie was centered on the ravages that WW II caused in Asia and the stories of people who were unwilling participants of this very violent event.
The story started at the height of the Japanese conquer of China’s old capital city of Nanking or Nanjing. This event is collectively known as the “Rape of Nanking”, although the Japanese nation as a whole continues to deny the events surrounding this. It remains to be a constant diplomatic thorn between Japan and China and most of Southeast Asia, including the Philippines. Growing up, I heard about the Japanese “comfort women”. This is the term used for the countless number of women gang raped by Japanese soldiers as they wreaked havoc across Asia during their epic campaign to conquer the East, just as Hitler was causing his own genocide in Europe.
For two and a half hour, as I cried my heart out for the protagonists of the story, my eyes swelled as if it was stung by a monstrous bee. The mixed bag of characters included an unsavory Westerner, a dozen or so flamboyant and stylish prostitutes, the church’s young caretaker and a group of teen schoolgirls. They were all trapped inside a Catholic church in the city as it fell under the hands of weary, very frustrated and murderous Japanese soldiers. The soldiers shot at every living thing that moves, except for women and female children who get gang raped and abused well beyond what is humanly possible before finally getting killed. It is the story of how these characters tried to defend the church that became their fort for as long as possible. It is much too heavy to watch on a Friday night when you’re just trying to unwind and detach yourself from the stress that transpired at work during the week. I don’t know why I would expect nothing short of that when the summary clearly mentioned Nanking and WWII.
There is no shortage of heartaches, salvation and sacrifices. It tells of a story full of deliverance at every level, the resilience of the human spirit, its ability to rise above enormous tragedy, and the dumbfounding capacity of human beings to do unspeakable evil and altruistic acts to each other, all at the same time. It exposes the full dichotomy of our tragic and flawed humanity – how we’re both evil and good, how within us, two forces constantly wage endless battles to win our soul. It forces the viewers to face the reality of humanity’s ever-present choices: let others see even just a diminutive glimpse of God through our tiniest acts of goodness or surrender to the darkness in a maddening takeover that would surprise even Hitler himself.
As the story unfolds, the characters evolve into better version of themselves. It has a very unexpected turn of events that would leave you gasping and wanting for more resolutions, even though it was still satisfying at some level. At some point, I thought it left a hole in my soul as I felt helpless, unable to do something about it. I would have written a different ending but I realized that some people might like it that way. I want everyone to be happy but I’m not a realist. I know that this is just a movie but I get carried away when a fiction is based on historical events because I can’t help but think that some of those events happened to real people.
Watch it, if only to edify your soul. It is one of those movies.
P.S. Don’t forget to pay attention to the wonderful fashion sense of the prostitutes. The movie has some great costumes! Nini, the girl who played Yu Mo, is so beautiful! What a lovely face she has.
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