Men Behind the Sun (1988)
By: Mr Intolerance on May 22, 2007  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
World Video (USA). All Regions, NTSC. 4:3. English DD 2.0, Cantonese DD 2.0, Mandarin DD 2.0. 95 minutes
The Movie
Director: T. F. Mous
Starring: Wang Gang, Wu Dai Yao, Wang Run Shen, Quan Zhe, Mei Zhao Hua, Jin Tie Long
Screenplay: Mou Wen Yuan, Teng Dun Jing, Liu Mei Fei
Music: Phillipe d'Aram Country: Hong Kong
AKA: Hei Teai Yang 731, Squadron 731, Man Behind the Sun
Dealing with the experiments and activities of the infamous Unit 731 in Manchuria during WW2, Men Behind the Sun is truly a film of horror.

Made by Hong Kong director TF Mous, Men Benind the Sun is one of the bleakest, blackest, grimmest films ever made. Personally, I don't find the film to be as exploitative as many of its detractors might suggest (although there are undoubtedly some moments in it that could be interpreted as exploitative), but I would apply that epithet to its excruciatingly poor sequel, the abysmal Godfrey Ho directed Laboratory of the Devil. But it is a hideously violent, deeply shocking condemnation of the war crimes inflicted upon the Chinese (among others) by the Japanese Imperial Army.

BEWARE!!! Spoilers will abound!

Based in the puppet province of Manchukuo, Unit 731 was a secret military scientific and medical experimentation facility, masquerading as a water purification plant, focussing on biological warfare – increasing the virulence of strains of typhus, cholera and bubonic plague, for example – and led at various points by Lt General Shiro Ishii. The experiments were performed upon civilians as well as Chinese, Russian and other Allied prisoners of war who, military or not, were referred to euphemistically as 'maruta'. Material, basically, or as Sergeant Kawasaki snarls at one point to the Youth Corps in his charge, "A log for the fire." Dismantled (well…mostly destroyed by the retreating Japanese) at the end of the war, Unit 731 had been a tightly guarded secret, and despite the obvious similarities, never achieved the notoriety accorded in the West to Auschwitz-Birkenau, Buchenwald or Ravensbruck. According to an interview with the director on the R0 version I've got though, the Chinese have never forgotten it, and the Japanese simply aren't taught about it. It's still a highly contentious issue, and the director, for making this film, has received death-threats from loony Japanese right-wing extremists.

Out of all the HK Cat 3 films I've seen (Hong Kong Category 3 films are the strongest in content in terms of sex and violence), this is the most high impact with regard to violence and human suffering. I've mentioned in other reviews that there are certain films that really bum me out, the kind of thing that when they're finished I tend to sit on my sofa and just stare into the darkness for hours – Cannibal Holocaust, Salo, Schramm, Emanuelle in America, The Grey Zone, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, All Night Long 2: Atrocity, Black Sun, for example. This film sits alongside those movies. It's bleak, oppressive and ultimately life-denying. The characters are fundamentally unlikeable, and the images on the screen are grotesque. I would challenge anyone to sit and watch this film and not be affected by it.

The basic story begins towards the end of the war, with a group of Youth Corps troops in the Japanese Imperial Army arriving in Harbin, having no idea what their duties will be. To the best of my mind, I think we're meant to identify with them, losing our innocence/ignorance at the same time as them – but the fact is, you can't sympathise with someone who can still spout nationalistic jingoist bullshit after they've seen a friend of theirs machine-gunned by their own soldiers and charred into a blackened corpse on an electric fence. The truth becomes rapidly apparent to the boys when they arrive at the camp and find themselves under draconian rule, and becoming gradually exposed to even more and more horrific sights as the film progresses.

Also arriving, well, returning, more accurately, is Lt General Shiro Ishii, the original commander of Unit 731, who at one point was transferred for corruption. However, these are dark days for the Empire, and they need their 'best' man for the job, and so he's sent back to take charge of the experiments. In the first shot we get of Ishii, he's cleaning his fingers with some form of antiseptic, despite the fact that all he's doing is sitting on a train in a room by him self – the solo setting and washing of the hands firmly establishing him as aloof, icy and detached. He looks like a snake in human form. The only time we see this character looking happy is when he's contributed to some form of human misery – designing the low-heat ceramic artillery shells needed to fire the plague fleas at the enemy, for example. The look of sadistic glee when he gives a practical demonstration of such to his men is unpleasant, to say the least. Worse still is the roar of approval and applause his men give him in return.

The film proceeds in documentary form, showing the various experiments, with interludes of the boys being put through their military paces in basic training. It is not pleasant viewing. The special effects are disturbingly realistic: the dead bodies the drunken crematory worker hacks up and throws into the furnaces at different points of the film, for example, are very convincing. Ditto the sequence where a man is subjected to depressurisation to the point where he rectally prolapses a few meters of his intestines.

The most truly horrible thing I think I've ever seen, however, would have to be the freezing experiments. Firstly, it's night time and more 'maruta' are arriving via train. A woman is clutching her child to her, frightened and alone. A Japanese soldier tears the child from her arms and kicks the woman down a ramp towards the cells. He drops the baby into the snow, its cries gradually muffled by the snow he rakes over it with his foot, burying it alive. When it's pointed out to him that the doctors need to preserve all of the victims, he casually replies, "This one can be stuffed and mounted. It won't be wasted." It's this level of casual indifference to suffering that starts to induce despair in the audience. The mother, unhinged by the loss of her child and pathetically clutching a pillow to her chest in its stead, staring blankly in front of her, is dragged outside and staked out in the snow, her arms stretched out in front of her over icy poles; she is surrounded by a tall semi-circular wall of ice. When the pillow is taken from her and casually tossed onto the ice, she responds as though it's a real child. Freezing water is repeatedly poured over her arms over a course of hours, forming long icicles from her forearms, smashed off by a bayonet. When she's brought back into the laboratory, her blackened and frostbitten arms outstretched before her, she's ordered to plunge them into heated water. What happens next is almost indescribable. The doctor orders her to remove her arms from the tank of water. She takes her arms from the tank and he strips the flesh from her arms like elbow length gloves, no effort required. The woman, practically catatonic to this point, shrieks, staring in abject horror at the bones before her, dangling their tatters of skin. The boys try to look away, but are ordered to continue watching by the sadistic Kawasaki. The doctor goes on to show a quick-freezing experiment where a man's arms are frozen instantly with liquid nitrogen. The doctor orders him to put his hands on the table. He beats the man's hands with a stick and the fingers break off like his arms were made of ceramic. I watched this cavalcade of awfulness with increasing levels of depression. The fact that it's all presented so clinically makes it all the more horrible. If there were a villain foaming rabidly at the mouth and laughing maniacally, you could achieve some distance, but it's a calm, grey-haired, unassuming and bespectacled man who looks like he could actually be your own GP.

I won't bore you with the rest of the horrors inflicted upon the hapless victims, but I will tell you that this film has probably the most downbeat ending EVER.

My guess for why this film gets such a bad rap would be for two sequences: one where a real cat gets eaten alive by thousands of starving rats ( to my mind, this is Mous saying that a predator can be overcome by a usually docile, yet mistreated mass given the right circumstances), the other where a real cadaver is dissected on screen. The body of a young boy of maybe 10 years old is cut open, with parts of it being removed. In the context of the film, it serves only one purpose: to show the inhumanity of the Japanese doctors; the child is carved up for a bet. What is interesting is that, again according to an interview with the director on the DVD, the parents of the real dead child allowed the body to be used in the film because of the truths the film was showing; the importance of bringing greater consciousness of what happened to a wider audience.

One of my many gripes with my copy of this DVD is the English language track – crap US voice actors being overly melodramatic, robbing this film of a bit of its wallop, and actually making it seem like an exploitation shocker. It cheapens it. Oh, and the fact that there are only 4 chapters. It makes navigating the disc very difficult indeed. I also found out while composing this review that the fucking thing is cut! What the fuck?! What worries me is that if they left all of this totally fucking heinous, gut-wrenching, puke-a-tronic stuff in – what must the stuff they cut out be like?

Yet still, even with the many pitfalls this version has, you can still tell – as an anti-war film, this is non-pareil.
Poor. While the picture is letterboxed slightly, there's grain a-plenty, artefacts all over the bloody shop, and a generally low quality transfer. Also – no subtitles or voiceovers for the Chinese written characters that appear sporadically on screen. Seriously, this looks like a bad VHS.
Like a bowl of fucking Rice Bubbles – snap, crackle and pop. Not to mention an almost constant hiss. I have to get an upgrade. Even if you watch this with the Cantonese or Mandarin audio tracks (which have no subtitles despite what the back cover says, so you have no idea what the hell is being said), there are drop outs in the sound. And as for the dubbing of the sound effects… oh brother… Some of it isn't even vaguely in synch. Also, the score is truly woeful. In the interview, Mous states that he didn't like it either, which is why there is so little of it in the finished product.
Extra Features
Little in the way of these. What they refer to as a Director's Filmography is actually a 25 page text interview - this is interesting reading, particularly the film's reception in Japan, which you can imagine is not especially positive...

Apart from that, some trailers - Men Behind the Sun, Dead Target, Red Fist and Romance of Book and Sword. I actually think that like with the Unearthed release of Black Sun: The Nanking Massacre, some historical documentary material would have helped. I realise that actual primary footage and sources would be scarce to non-existent, but even a few pages of text from some reputable source might help to take the sting of the exploitation tag away from the film. Mind you, so would not having rubbish dubbing...
The Verdict
One of the most powerful anti-war films ever made, and certainly one of the most brutal films of any kind ever. I would stand up in any court of law and defend its artistic merit, and justify its integrity as a film, despite its harrowingly graphic content, which frankly needs to be there. I couldn't say I enjoyed the film, but I did engage with it. If Scream-style horror is your bag, then avoid this. If, like me, you like stronger fare, watch it and expect horribleness. Regardless, it's a well made and, as I said before, powerful, if oppressively depressing, film.

By the way, despite the fact that this is an exceptional film, I've had to knock off a point for the general crappiness of the transfer. It's that bad. No care has been taken with this disc; the demands of the audience not given any thought whatsoever – kind of like the company have thrown the disc at you, sneering, "Yeah, here's your fuckin' entertainment – take it and like it, you fuckin retard." Shabby.
Movie Score
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