Philosophy of a Knife (2008)
By: Mr Intolerance on October 1, 2008  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Unearthed (USA). Region 1, NTSC. 4:3. English DD 2.0. English Subtitles. 249 minutes
The Movie
Director: Andrey Iskanov
Starring: Tetsuro Sakagami, Elena Probatova, Yukari Fujimoto, Stephen Tipton, Anatoliy Protasov
Screenplay: Andrey Iskanov
Country: Russia
External Links
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Philosophy of a Knife details, in a highly fictionalised, quite stylised fashion, events surrounding Unit 731, a Japanese bacteriological warfare division based in the puppet state of Manchukuo (Manchuria) from the 1930s through to the end of the war. The excesses and inhumanity of Unit 731 equal those of the Nazi extermination camps in places such as Ravensbruck and Buchenwald; they simply aren't as widely known about. Hong Kong director TF Mous told this story in the unrelentingly grim Men Behind the Sun, and he told it a great deal more successfully than Russian director Andrey Iskanov is trying to here.

It's disheartening to see that sycophancy and pretention are universals. The introduction to the film is Iskanov and two other bozos waxing lyrical about their endeavours in making this film, and each other. This does not make for an optimistic approach to the film. Nor does the film-maker's claim that he isn't trying for either historical or chronological accuracy, although somehow at the same time, "we just intended to depict the facts the way the actually are" (sic). How the fuck does that work? At the point when they state that this isn't a film for entertainment I did start to question why I was then watching it. They've already told me it wasn't a documentary, and it's not a historical document, and so if it's not informative, or educational, and it's not entertainment, then why the hell  should I be spending the next 4 and a half hours watching it? Things are not boding well for this particular viewing experience.

Especially when the opening scene of the film categorically states: "All events shown in this film actually occurred and have been carefully recreated…" What do you want, fellas? The historical accuracy medal, or the exploitation dollar? You can't have both. In the same screen shot, we get the illuminating information, "This film is an artistic representation of factual events now known about Unit 731."  And so this is historically accurate how, exactly? I don't quite get how you can artistically represent facts – that indicates subjectivity, and so the idea of factual information flies out the window, being that we're no longer in Objectivity-town.

Presented to us in a kind of cod-documentary form complete with doctored footage (film stock that's been artificially degraded to present a kind of verite), Philosophy of a Knife is attempting on some levels to do what Black Sun: The Nanking Massacre did, albeit here with less success and with too much flab. Unlike Mous' two films, this one doesn't really take an overtly political standpoint. It's not anti-Japanese, it's not pro-Russian (although Iskanov's presenting Russian victims to the exclusion of the Chinese is making me re-think that statement).

The film starts well (dedication aside) and despite what the introduction states, gives us a pretty factual account of Japanese-Russian relations from the beginning of the 20th century through to the beginning of World War 2. There's actual documentary footage (or at least I'm assuming it is, given the tremendous expense of filming some of these shots on the scale that they're on), faux-documentary and flat out made for this film footage shoved together into a quite credible melange of socio-historical fact. Adding to the fact that one of the subjects of the film is Russian doctor (and translator at the Khabarovsk War CrimeTrials condemning the activities of Unit 731) Anatoliy Protasov, an 80 year plus old gent whose stories of the war years in Harbin are the most interesting parts of the film, I don't think Iskanov made the most of his run-time. Protasov's stories are told in a blunt, matter of fact fashion. Iskanov's film is not, and it suffers accordingly. It relies overly-much on images and camerawork, and in terms of the feature elements of the film, is quite the dismal failure – some of the acting is flat-out awful, the absence of dialogue becomes quite tedious; voiceovers are the order of the day here, and while they work quite well in the documentary sections narrated by Stephen Tipton, I like to see characters interact. I can take this reliance on confusingly abstruse pictures in short films, but when it gets stretched out to include feature length (and in this case absurdly long feature length) films, my patience wears rather thin, rather quickly.

As with Men Behind the Sun (sorry to keep mentioning it, but the comparison is an obvious one, and even if we discount this review, Iskanov better get used to it), we're given characters to identify with – a young Japanese officer who's fallen in love, or at least seems obsessed with a Russian in-mate, and a Japanese nurse, who for reasons best left unexamined, is inexplicably voice-acted by German actress Manoush. The effect is about as realistic as having Gandhi voice act for Darth Vader, and the scenes featuring these characters just end up being repetitive, leading ultimately to their being, well, kind of pointless. And while we're on the topic of casting, the majority of the victims of Unit 731 were Chinese – why are there no images of Chinese victims? I don't need to see Chinese people being tortured and murdered, but the victims are all Russian, and the Russian victims, while present, were in the minority – historical inaccuracy on that scale and with that level of cultural insensitivity, given the subject matter,  bugs me. And where was everybody? For a prison camp teeming with soldiers, doctors and victims, the place seemed oddly unpopulated. I realise that that's part of the problem of low budget film-making – but that's also part of the problem you have to solve if you want people to "buy" your film. Does the guy not have any friends he could have shoved into a lab coat or a uniform to swell a scene or two?    

If the film's initial beheading scene didn't have you reaching for the barf-bag or running out the door, then the juxtaposition of stock film images of the Bund Deutsche Maedchen with images of the congenitally deformed might just do the trick (some real, some woefully inadequately faked). This is some nasty work right here – the juxtaposition of the "flower of Aryan womanhood" and the sadly physically handicapped being brought out as the freak show, Iskanov really rubs our collective nose in it. And it's effective – but it's still exploitation, despite whatever deeper intentions Iskanov says that he had. Frankly, I don't believe him. He's wringing every shock or thrill he can out of his subject matter. I mean, this footage in particular is no different to paying the carny barker a quarter to watch the geek bite the head off the chicken, and then going off to perve at the girl on the high-wire.

What would have been more effective would have been Iskanov leaving out a lot of the artistic shots that slow down the narrative flow. I understand why he's done it – directorial vision and all – but it pulls the admittedly strong punches the film has to offer, and jars the audience out of the belief that they're watching a rather long documentary. He also would have got the film down to a more user-friendly running time. This is the same problem that constantly dogs David Lynch – style or substance? I go for substance every time. Example: the image of the Japanese nurse in the foreground playing a Jew's harp juxtaposed with the fella in the background carving up bodies with a huge axe in front of a Japanese flag was a little heavy-handed for my taste (and I'll guarantee it never happened, more to the point), when compared with the drunken crematorium worker in TF Mous' infinitely superior Men Behind The Sun, the definitive film about Unit 731 and their nefarious and inhuman activities. Longer does not mean better. The second time I watched this film, all I could see was the useless flab that the film contains – the constant repetition of shots, the jump-cut-edited change of POV shots, the overly long graphic set pieces (they could have been much shorter and thus retained more of their impact), the scenes contrived to be absurd simply for absurdity's own sake – stylish? Sure. Totally jarring you out of the tone the film is trying to establish? You'd better believe it. Advancing the narrative flow of the film? Not a jot. Even despite the at times hyper-kinetic editing and the constant jump between documentary, faux-documentary, interview, feature film, still images (some of these, especially the "before and after" experiment shots are the most horrific things you'll see in this film – Iskanov's artificial gore can't even come close to this for sheer grotesquerie) – the film never moves faster than a crawl. That said, on a first viewing, it held my interest well – I was over four hours in before looking at my watch for the first time.

At the excessive run-time, you do have to wonder whether this was just total self-gratifying masturbatory excess, or a serious grab at greatness, and a huge political statement. I mean, DW Griffith's Intolerance was pushing the boundaries back in it's day, but it didn't get anywhere near this baby. This might simply be seen as an exercise in excessitude. It never seems over-done or gratuitous in terms of length, but I was watching my watch towards the end. I guess that it's Iskanov's skill that kept me watching. That, or morbid curiosity, anyway.

I guess that Philosophy of a Knife is going to be known (and probably valued by the witless gorehound set) via its set pieces. This film certainly serves as a warning about going to see the dentist. The tooth-removing sequence is really quite horrible, to put it mildly. Dental trauma comes only a close second to ocular trauma in terms of horribleness, in the eyes of this reviewer. But it just keeps going on and on and on. After the nearly four and a half minutes of tooth-removal via pliers, you just get, well, desensitised to it - you're pretty much drained of any emotional response beyond your eyes widening slightly, and saying, "ewwww," by the end. That kind of chronic nastiness deserves more, and if this film were cut to 100 minutes, it would get it. You seriously just have nothing left to give by the time the scene ends (or indeed the film itself) – the film-makers definitely missed a trick there. 

The decompression scene lacks the "oomph" of the same scene in Men Behind The Sun, mainly due to the special effects. It simply doesn't have the strength necessary to make it work. Mous' film worked because the gore effects were hands on, real effects: appliance, prosthesis, etcetera. Now, there's some of that here, but generally speaking, the effects aren't all that flash, in my opinion, and there's an extremely annoying over-reliance on green-screen backgrounds that might work with Robert Rodriguez' budget on Sin City, but flops embarrassingly here. The decision to shoot in black and white was an interesting one, but the fake blood looks unrealistic, and the whole thing ends up seeming a bit cheap and tacky, and kind of grimy. This is subjective directorial vision, and not at all historical fact – if you were performing endurance experiments for serious scientific purposes, which was Unit 731's brief, why would you be doing it in non-sterile conditions, thus invalidating your findings? Actually, while we're on the subject, the industrial vibe of the film provides a great deal of distance for the audience – there are times when the highly irritating and intrusive soundtrack might have you believe that you're watching a video-clip for a third rate Nine Inch Nails/Marilyn Manson clone.    

The actual story of Unit 731 and their atrocities is grimly fascinating enough and doesn't need Iskanov's trademark battery of (at times) almost hallucinatory imagery to interest or engage us. It's gilding the lily (albeit a rather rotten and diseased one) – it's an unfortunate part of the human condition to find the grotesque so mesmerising, and to want to see; we're prepared to slow down to gawp at the car-crash, but how many of us actually get out of the car to help the victims? The documentary information is about as up-to-date and accurate (now) as you could possibly hope for. The interviews with Prosatov are interesting – the feature footage is not good. The violence and degradation are far from condemned, they're positively celebrated gleefully – the camera revels in the cruelty of the victims' suffering. This is more exploitative than Men Behind the Sun could ever have been. By the way, there are plenty of shocks and horrors I've deliberately avoided mentioning – be warned, this is pretty sick by anyone's standards, but it lacks the visceral sucker-punch you expect.

Iskanov is definitely a director with style and flair (if Nails didn't show us that, nothing would), but I can't help thinking that it's that very style which is holding him back from achieving true greatness. I mean, when you look at the work of say David Fincher or David Cronenberg, the stylistic touches are all over their films, but the substance ultimately wins out. With this film, the style is what we're drawn to, and so the substance naturally loses out. There's a good film in there, but to draw it out over 4 and a half hours is ludicrous. No-one has the attention span to cope with it. I watched this for the first time in one sitting (and I practically had bed sores afterwards), but it could have been done – point made – in less than half the running time. My other big question besides why make it so long, is why film it in full-frame 1.33:1? In this day and age, that's just baffling to begin with, and truly mystifying given the sense of scope and scale Iskanov is obviously trying to achieve.

I wonder what someone not desensitised by 30 plus years of watching horror films would make of it.   
As with the recent Tarantino/Rodriguez monumental flop Grindhouse, the film stock here is artificially degraded to give it some kind of verisimilitude – but why the colour sequences are given the same treatment is a little mystifying, being that they're meant to be present day, and so the film wouldn't have to look aged. Given that it's meant to look old or weathered, the picture still has that rather unfortunate "straight to video" feel about it that not even Iskanov's flair for direction can iron out.
Serviceable. I can't say it blew me away, but then again I find it hard to get really excited by audio. Some of the sound effects made me laugh out loud – kind of Troma-esque gooey-ness, and other oddly deafening diagetic noises (cloth tearing doesn't make that much noise in real life…) that were so loud and pronounced on the soundtrack it produced howls of derisive laughter. This is the same problem some of the Guinea Pig films suffer from – inappropriately loud sound effects killing the mood the filmmaker is attempting to achieve. And while we're at it, the industrial soundtrack is uniformly dreadful, reinforcing the music-video feel of the film.
Extra Features
Making of Philosophy of a Knife: Plenty of windy discussion is given about the nature of good and evil, even trying to validate the film and what it tries to do by quoting the Bible, trying to find an answer. This has little to do with the film itself, talking mainly around it rather than about it. Basically this is a very dull piece of work, tangentially related to the film, with Iskanov trying to make himself look like some kind of intellectual on the edge, a la Cronenberg. I lost interest about 5 minutes in, and was looking for the fast forward in 10. This whole doco is boring, self-serving and pretentious. Plus, everyone interviewed here takes themselves VERY seriously indeed. It's an exploitation film, fellas, not high art.

A Glimpse of Hell: A short film by the director showing lots of pictures of dead bodies. Real ones. Stacked on top of each other. This is neither entertaining, nor engaging.  As a matter of fact, it's sick and vile. This really degrades the humanity and the dignity of the bodies shown. I'd put this in the same bin that I'd put SPK's Despair, with its nauseating mortuary hi-jinks.

Deleted scenes: yawn. Like I want to see more of this film? Puh-leeze…

Interview with actress Manoush: From the outset it's pretty obvious that she's either a drunk or drug-fucked has-been, and if she isn't, she does an excellent impression of it. Next!

Ultra-violent interview with Andrey Iskanov: A boring text interview. Yawn.

Dead Before Born:a rather dull video clip using images from the movie, directed by Iskanov, featuring the music of Cyanide Saviour. You won't be seeing this one on MTV anytime soon.

Forgive Me: a music video by Alexander Shevchenko, who does the soundtrack of the film, directed by Iskanov. I'd be surprised if this one got seen outside this particular forum either.

Original Soundtrack: if you want it, it's on the special features disc in mp3 format.

Still Gallery: the hint is in the title.

Trailers: trailers for Philosophy of a Knife, Black Sun: The Nanking Massacre, Dead Fury, Red Room 2, Frankenhooker, Nails and Visions of Suffering.

All up, a rather dull, if complete, extras package.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
Philosophy of a Knife is not a bad film, it's just one that has been over-hyped within an inch of it life. It does tend to wallow a bit in its own excesses, and is veritably groaning under its own weight – 249 minutes is too long, given that TF Mous did a better job on the same story in 96. I can't ever see that there'll be a situation whereby I'll ever want to watch this film again. Morally, parts of it are indefensible – the dedication that kicks the film off dedicates it to both the victims and their tormentors – this is tasteless in the extreme, kind of like dedicating Schindler's List to Reinhard Heydrich. The leering camera work on scenes of violence (particularly when any kind of sexuality can be found in the scene) – this belies any claim of the film being serious, and lumps it firmly in the exploitation camp (no pun intended), which really is where it belongs, despite Iskanov's rather lofty claims to the contrary. This will no doubt quickly garner a cult audience of preening morons who will look down their noses at folks like me who weren't impressed or fooled by Philosophy of a Knife, and tell us we couldn't take it or didn't get it, like watching the damned thing was some kind of badge of honour. I sat through it (and that's exactly the feeling I had – I sat through it, I didn't engage with it) and saw it for exactly what it was – a gorefest masquerading as an artistically shot pseudo-documentary pretending that it wasn't an exploitation film, and further, telling the dreadful lie that it wasn't making cash off the suffering of others. 

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