Wednesday, March 20, 2013
Review: Men Behind the Sun
My Edition: Single disc, widescreen version (Additional details in the review itself)
History: This film has had it's share of controversy and censorship over the years. Looking at the wikipedia page alone you'll see that different regions have different run times because of cutting chunks of violence out. It has been released with a run time from 90 minutes all the way up to the full 105 minute cut. The original intent was to make the film as realistic as possible, but because of how exploitative the violence was he has been accused of it not having any sort of historical or educational value. In China it was considered to be so violent that it was the first film to receive a III rating (equal to an NC-17 here in the states). This film had three sequels but have little to nothing to do with the first one outside of general theme.
Personal History: This is my first viewing. I knew very little about this title, or the franchise as a whole going into it.
Review: Before I start talking about the movie itself I want to talk about the edition that I got in the mail. Looks like the US audience got pretty shafted with this movie because the only version I could find outside of a more expensive import is really shitty. First off, the transfer is horrendous. It looks like a transfer straight from a VHS copy with basically no remastering. Seriously, it looks really bad. Then while it does have multiple language tracks, including it's original Chinese track, it has no subtitles whatsoever. So either you can watch it the way it was originally conceived but not know what they're saying, or you can watch the English dub and be annoyed but know what's going on. Lastly, it is in widescreen but it's non-anamorphic. To those of you who don't know what I mean by that, the widescreen image doesn't fill the screen. It's presented in a square "full screen" type format and then the image is letter boxed. This was the least of my concerns cause I don't mind having to use the zoom feature on my TV. Still it doesn't help when looking at the terrible image quality of the transfer. Also, I'm pretty sure the version I bought was partially cut. It's shorter than the original run time as it shows on IMDB and Wikipedia at 105 minutes. Whereas mine is 100 minutes, and on the case it stated 95 minutes. So I give the DVD I received a very low score. On a school grading scale this is easily a D. It only passes because the movie played from beginning to end without any problems. This is a really poor excuse of a DVD release.
So, the actual movie. I've got to say this one was a tough watch. It is really no holds barred. Also, I've got to say that with how low the budget was on this movie it looks great and is very effective. The movie doesn't bury the lead, either. The way it was promoted also touches big time on how intense it is. Even on the box art to the shitty version I found states a warning about the content and how it is certain to offend anyone. Talk about potentially over-selling. But it's good to warn cause some may pick this up thinking it's more along the lines of Schindler's List in terms of historical dramas. Something that is hard to watch but people would put up with the difficulties cause it's interesting. It's history after all. Well Men Behind the Sun is closer to a horror movie if you ask me. Nothing supernatural or haunted or anything like that, and it does claim to document the tortures that happened during the war, but so much of it feels to be intensified and put together in a way that felt more horror-like than straight up drama. I feel like if it wanted to be more like a drama then it wouldn't feel the need to be so intense. At least a bit more realistically intense. Well and here's the thing. Maybe the reason why I found this to be more along the lines of horror is not really in it's execution in acting and cinematography, but just the overall feel of the story and the realism in the visual effects.
To expand on this I'll reference a documentary I once saw. It's a short film about the holocaust called Night and Fog. I remember toward the end of the movie there was one shot in particular that showed dead people being tossed into a giant hole to be buried. It was nothing more than a drop but the way the dead body dropped and fell down the hold curled my stomach in ways that regular movies do. Something about it was different enough, well, realistic enough that it was really unsettling. Again, just a body dropping. Not being ripped apart, not in the process of actual murder, just a dead body dropping. Now the reason why I told you that is because of this. The movie's budget was really low and China (at least at the time) didn't have a special effects industry for the filmmakers to turn to. So for the brutal killings in this movie they did something I've never seen before. The director had connections where he was able to obtain real dead bodies and body parts. So in the scenes I'm about to describe to you, just imagine. Imagine it being done in a way that is the closest to realistic you will ever see. The next step above this is actually doing these things to a person in real life and not just on dead bodies. I think it's safe to say you've been warned...
Well now that I've built it up like I read about I hope you aren't disappointed when I get into it. Usually when I watch movies like this I think I get a little overly excited about how crazy it will get and so the entire time I'm really focusing in on anything that could be intense. This always leads to the same process every time. The beginning is tame/not so intense. My expectations lower as the film goes on. And then something hits me out of left field that I did not see coming. So with that said the beginning didn't quite hit me with the intensity right away. It does take some time. There are a couple deaths early on but one of them is a far away shot of a man being electrocuted to death on an electric fence. Otherwise nothing too terribly noteworthy. But much like in Salo, it's when the torture, or in this case experiments start that things really get insane and earn it's reputation.
One noteworthy experiment that seems to be pretty popular in this movie is the scene when they leave a woman outside, repeatedly pour cold water over her hands and forearms, allowing them to freeze. It goes on for quite a while and is really tough to watch. Interesting piece of trivia on this scene, the girl that is the guinea pig is the director's niece. She was the only one willing to play the long and torturous role and even nearly got frostbite in the process. So what happens is after they've frozen her hand enough they bring her back inside. Then they dip her hand in boiling hot water to heath them back up. Then to finish it all off the skin gets pulled off clean by the man doing the experiment. All that is left is the bones. Keep in mind what I said earlier about the visual effects. It really makes your stomach turn just seeing it.
What follows really is a series of vicious experiments and other violent imagery. On the cover of the (TERRIBLE) edition I have it states that it's in the tradition of Faces of Death. While this is a completely different style of movie as Faces of Death I can see where they make the connection. The images in this are terribly realistic. And if they're not realistic then they're still quite horrifying to look at. There are really two other specific images that come to mind. One is when they throw a man into this chamber and lock him in. Then in this chamber is some sort of machine and when they switch it on the sound of a piercing high pitch noise comes out. The man slowly finds it more difficult to tolerate it and appears to fall over dead. That's not the end, though. What happens next is the man's body swells up. Then it appears he starts to soil himself from the back end (by the way, he's naked), but then you quickly realize that was his intestine as it literally explodes out of the back end of him. Pretty gross, and don't forget these are real human parts. The other scene that comes to mind is when the people running the experiments bring in a young boy to operate on him. They proceed to perform an autopsy on him while he's still alive. It includes closeups and everything. Although the closeups of the still beating heart and stuff were the crew dissecting a pig. Still really rough to watch because it looks so real (BECAUSE SO MUCH IS REAL... in a way).
Describing those scenes does not to the film justice. It really is a case of "seeing is believing." Much like other shock films like Cannibal Holocaust. One scene I didn't even mention in great detail was the scene when a cat was killed by literally a full room of rats. Between that and the other scenes I described it is pretty clear that this title isn't for everybody. But the movie isn't entirely about death. There's also something of a side story about some of the inmates escaping so they aren't killed in one of these bizarre experiments. Also there are multiple scenes that touch on the politics of what's going on at this time done in the fashion of all the officers gathering around for these different meetings. Oh yeah, and there's an attempted rape scene. The only reason the man stopped is because he got distracted, too.
So at the end of movies like this I can never really tell if I liked it. Since the purpose of a movie like this is to shock, if it succeeds does that means it's a good movie? But then again was the shock necessary to create this type of movie? It's titles like this that make it hard to define as entertainment. It's not exactly the type of movie you'd throw in on a Friday night when you have a bunch of friends over. So is it art? Probably closer to that than entertainment. But what kind of art? In short this is really complicated to classify and even harder to recommend. But did I like it? Did I enjoy it? I can't say cause I watched a shitty version of it. I feel I can't actually appreciate it or attempt to appreciate it proper until I see a subtitled version with the original language. Dubs rarely work in live action so I didn't feel I got the proper experience. But I am into taboo in film, seeing different titles push the envelope from different eras. Cause I've always been fascinated by controversy and censorship. So titles like this are up my alley in a way. Not in a pleasurable way, mind you, in the same way some of you may watch a summer blockbuster. I'm fascinated by the subject matter. Seeing just how far the content will go whether it's violence, sexuality, or dialogue. I am working on a post right now regarding taboo in film so I'll definitely touch on it in more detail there.
There were multiple sequels to this movie made but I can't imagine they have the same impact. Also they're probably just about the same thing, too, much like other horror sequels. I'm still curious to check them out cause I like when I'm proven wrong when I have low expectations. If you're interested in controversy and/or pushing the envelope of what can be done in a film then this is definitely one to keep an eye open for. I didn't feel it was as well done as other titles like Cannibal Holocaust and I'm sure A Serbian Film is better than this, too, but still worth checking out. While it's nothing too special it's still pretty unique in it's own right. I'm glad I picked it up but can't imagine watching it a whole lot. It's pretty touch to get through. Don't exactly feel like a million bucks at the end. Still, pretty glad I picked it up. Just looking forward to finally viewing it properly. But I will have to pay out more for it then. May as well go all out and pick up the complete box set if I'm gonna shell out the cash.