Men Behind the Sun (1987)
By: Mr Intolerance on November 17, 2008  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Japan Shock (Holland). All Regions, NTSC. 1.85:1 (16:9 enhanced). Cantonese DD 2.0. English, Dutch Subtitles.
The Movie
Cover Art
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
Country: Hong Kong
External Links
Purchase IMDB YouTube
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.

Apologies to those who have already read my previous review of the inferior World Video release of this film, as some of it will be similar, as in identical. Made by Hong Kong director TF Mous, Men Behind the Sun is one of the bleakest, blackest, grimmest films ever lensed. 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.

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 – mind you, Black Sun (also directed by Mous and depicting the atrocities inflicted upon the Chinese by the Japanese during the occupation of Nanking) gives it a serious run for its money – any film depicting a woman having a foetus being bayoneted out of her stomach by an enemy soldier is saying something pretty bloody serious about the treatment the Chinese received at the hands of the Japanese. This film is 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 Men Behind the Sun 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 Ishii is 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 – in this cut of the film, the captions that sporadically appear on the screen are subtitled, in some cases putting a name to the victim – personalising them, in others 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. This moves in gradations of horror. 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 one of the most downbeat endings of all time. The base is dismantled, the records and specimens destroyed, the maruta killed – their planned uprising a dismal failure. On the march to be transported, in torrential downpour, one of the Japanese soldiers' wives is giving birth – yet none of the doctors who are present – all expert at taking life – can help bring a new one into the world. We're then informed of the eventual outcome for all the concerned parties, and this is the real kicker: in return for the existing experimental data, and the services of the doctors, the Allied forces didn't prosecute Unit 731. Apparently the US had Ishii flown to the States (by the British, I believe), basically so that the Russians didn't get him first and utilise his skills themselves. Many of the doctors from 731 went on to become involved in big chemical industries and hospitals. If you were sinking in quicksand watching this film, that information was the foot on your head pushing you down faster.

My guess for why this film gets such a bad rap would be for two sequences.

  1. 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. For instance, the Youth Corps giving Kawasaki a severe drubbing after enduring his abuse for too long. Conversely, it's what 731 is all about – lots of little things killing one big thing. It's a horrible scene, but in the context of this film, it works. In this version of the film, it's an extended scene and if possible even more horrible than before. The camera lingers dispassionately on the poor beast as it is literally torn to pieces by the rats.

  2. 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 World Video 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.

Oddly enough, the 'extra' footage in this cut of the film is almost all expository dialogue, which if anything makes a number of the characters even more unlikeable than they were in the first place. The only bit of extra footage that relates to violence or the grotesque is in the aforementioned scene of animal cruelty. I'm assuming that the cuts that were made were therefore made by exploitative Western distributors for reasons of pacing – snip out some "non-essential" dialogue here and there to get us back to the grue and the other action as quickly as humanly possible without losing all sense of story. A bad move on their part, I think.

As opposed to the inferior version of this film I previously reviewed, you get this one in it's original language, and with subtitles, much better than the rather sad burnt-in dubbing, This, like subtitling of the on-screen captions, adds to the veracity of the movie, and increases its sombre documentary-style tone. Similarly, the use of the original language track means that the exploitative nature of the film is lessened – it becomes a much more 'real' film, with none of the distance placed between the audience and the activities we see on screen by the awful voice-acting on the English dub track.

A bold statement about the inhumanity of war and one that is based on a story rarely told. There are a number of other films bearing this title – avoid at all costs; the gravitas this film has does not lend itself to these inferior coat-tail riders, the only exception being Black Sun: The Nanking Massare, which is only connected to this film by having the same documentary feel, the same director, and the same theme of the inhuman Japanese cruelty to the Chinese during the war. It's a film that stands alone.

A side-note to the curious: Russian director Andrei Iskanov has made a 4 hour black and white film based on the actions of 731 Squadron called Philosophy of a Knife, soon to be released on DVD by Unearthed. He must have rubbed a few people up the wrong way with this film, as he was detained by the Russian Federal Police for a number of days, and all materials to do with this film were seized; still a political hot potato over 60 years later (and remember, if you believe the film the Russians were after the data of 731 as much as the US were, and remember that there were Russian victims killed in the camp) – it was even referred to in episodes of the conspiracy-crazy sci-fi show The X-Files – who knows what the end of the 731 saga will be.
A c lean, crisp and clear 1.85:1 transfer with 16:9 enhancement. This is almost unfortunate, given the actions we're forced to endure.
Far superior than I was used to. This version of Men Behind the Sun is actually listenable. However, the score is still truly woeful. In the interview on the World Video version, Mous states that he didn't like it either, which is why there is so little of it in the finished product.
Extra Features
A 52 minute documentary called "Kizu" which actually interviews ex-members of 731 Squadron, and gives the lie to many things stated at the end of the film, making the post-war activities of the doctors seem less sinister on a global scale (the difference between claims that Ishii was snatched out of Japan by the US to work on bacterial warfare used in Korea, and those far less hysterical ones that he in fact ran a hotel in Tokyo until he died, for example). What this documentary does shed light on is the growing consciousness about the activities of the men of 731, and their willingness to now come forward and admit what went on. The footage is shot primarily on the grounds of the original site (what remains of it), now established as a memorial to the victims who dies there, much like Auschwitz or Buchenwald. The images and clay statues on the site representing the atrocities undergone there are cold and harsh reminders that even if Men Behind the Sun is seen as a morally reprehensible exploitative piece of tatt, it is at least giving us the truth (albeit in a rather lurid version) of the matter.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
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.

This is far and away the best print of this film available. The World Video release I reviewed for this website some time ago is a pale comparison to this greatly superior version. And yes, the short answer is, if you're a fan of the film, it's well worth upgrading. You may not notice a great deal more going on on-screen, but the tone of the film is much more dark, more claustrophobic – in a word, nastier.

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