During World War II China, the horrors of war were laid bare and taken to inhuman limits. After the Japanese occupation of China in 1937, Japanese internment camps began to sprout up in China, much like the Stalags of Nazi Germany. The most notorious of these camps, however, was the headquarters of Unit 731. Unit 731 were a Japanese military unit that conducted research into biological and chemical warfare, and the unit was led by Lieutenant General Dr. Shiro Ichii of the Imperial Japanese Army. The experiments that Unit 731 committed on prisoners of Chinese, Russian and Korean descent were absolutely inhuman. The experiments of Unit 731 are atrocities that should never be forgotten, and should never be repeated. Unit 731 has gone down in history as Japan’s worst offense, much like the Holocaust of Nazi Germany. However, unlike the officers of camps such as Auschwitz and Dachau, no-one from Unit 731 was brought to justice. Shiro Ishii was granted immunity by the American authorities for handing over all the experimental data from Unit 731.
Men Behind The Sun is Tun Fei Mou’s factual war drama about the horrific experiments that Unit 731 carried out. It’s possibly the most extreme Asian film I’ll ever cover and, although it has great historical significance, there’s no disguising just how depressing, shocking and disturbing the experience of watching Men Behind The Sun is for the common viewer. Story-wise, Men Behind The Sun is incredibly faithful to the factual events of Unit 731, from Shiro Ishii’s arrival at Unit 731 in 1936 to the disbanding of Unit 731 and the retreat of its officers in 1945. What’s interesting to note about the story of Men Behind The Sun, however, is the fact that it doesn’t just focus on Shiro Ichii and his officers. The story of Men Behind The Sun focuses on three groups of people: Shiro Ichii and his officers as they research, experiment and torture, the Chinese prisoners called Marutas (logs) who are subject to these vile experiments and desperately wish for escape, and the young boys who make up Unit 731’s youth corp. This multi-focused approach works really well for this type of movie. The children of the youth corp are created to be very empathetic, and their indoctrination, humanity, loyalty and moral stability are all tested throughout the course of the film. When the children are affected by the things that are going on around them that are perpetrated by the adults, I couldn’t help but feel so much sympathy for their situation. It’s clear that no-one should be put in their situation, and I felt for them every step of the way.
The portrayal of the officers of Unit 731 on the other hand are shown as uncaring, unfeeling adults with the fiercest of fierce loyalty. Although this was accurate to history as Japan’s army were intensely loyal, there are times when the officers seem to be almost maniacal, especially Shiro Ishii when he discovers the cluster effect of porcelain. This does affect the intensity of the characters somewhat, as it makes them seem like over the top villains, but this happens very sparingly, and most of the time the officers are portrayed in a very realistic, intimidating manner. This portrayal is supported by the fantastic acting on display from the entire cast. For example, Gang Wang is absolutely perfect as Shiro Ishii, because he carries an intense charisma to the role. His calm, reserved performance is absolutely intimidating to witness and it makes the character of Shiro Ishii incredibly powerful to see.
In terms of production, Men Behind The Sun isn’t exactly perfect. The cinematography could have been better and I noticed some audio sync issues, but the editing really stood out to me. Although I cannot find out the name of the editor, as the information on this film that is available is both detailed and sparse, the editing on Men Behind the Sun is perfect. It’s a tense and atmospheric movie which moves at a very appropriate pace, and the majority of that is due to the editing. The editor knew what shots to linger on, when to cut, what sequences needed to be faster and which needed to be slower. As a result, sequences which focus on the inhuman experiments are slower and more uncomfortable, whilst the climactic Maruta escape scene is fast paced and absolutely thrilling. I do wish I could find out the name of the editor because I would love to see other films that they may have worked on, as I applaud their work on Men behind The Sun.
However, I have to address the biggest issue about Men Behind The Sun: the special effects, or lack thereof. In the 1980s, although Hong Kong had a film industry, there was no dedicated VFX industry. This didn’t deter Tun Fei Mou, however, as he still wanted to show the graphic and horrific experiments that were performed by Unit 731. So, instead of trying to create realistic dummies with no special effects experience, Tun Fei Mou used actual corpses for the film’s death and dissection scenes. I want to iterate: nobody dies onscreen during Men Behind The Sun, but the film uses real corpses to ‘simulate’ the dissection and experimentation of the Chinese people by Unit 731. The most graphic of which is the dissection and organ harvesting of a ten year old boy, in which the scene is shown in heavy detail. It’s as uncomfortable, shocking and as disturbing as it sounds, and its the reason why the film is still very controversial and disturbing to this very day. Because of this many, many criticize Men Behind The Sun as being nothing more than a cheap exploitation film, a Japanese equivalent to the heavily controversial Nazisploitation genre of the late 1970s, and Tun Fei Mou received death threats because of it.
As for me? I do not celebrate the use of real corpses, but there’s no hiding the effect that the use of real corpses had on me. I was upset, I was shocked, I was disturbed. However, I realize that that was the intention of the whole film. Men Behind The Sun isn’t a film that’s supposed to be enjoyable, it’s supposed to be disturbing, it’s supposed to be realistic, it’s supposed to stay in the mind long after it’s finished and it’s supposed to deeply affect the viewer, and for me, it did just that. I gave this movie a chance, and I only find out the fact that real corpses were involved after I had finished watching it. For the record, I will never be happy about a film using actual corpses instead of clever special effects, but Men Behind The Sun is the only exception to that rule because of its historical accuracy and lack of enjoyability. Someone’s death should never be used for entertainment, but Men Behind The Sun isn’t trying to be entertaining, it’s supposed to be hard hitting and realistic. I didn’t come away from this film feeling fulfilled, I came away feeling incredibly depressed and upset, and its clear that was what the film wanted me to feel.
In the end, I wouldn’t recommend Men Behind The Sun freely. A viewer has to be aware of what they’re about to watch and be mentally capable of watching these images without being scarred or traumatized. However, I will say that Men Behind The Sun is one of the greatest war dramas I’ve ever seen. Its realism is unparalleled and aside from a few images of obvious symbolism, such as a Chinese Maruta being impaled with the Japanese flag, and the crying of a new born Japanese baby right at the end after the death of its mother (symbolizing the birth of a new Japanese way and the death of the old way), there’s never been a more frighteningly realistic portrayal of the atrocities that happen during a period of war. To quote the beginning of the film: ‘history is history’, and if one wants to portray it accurately, it should be presented realistically without any unnecessary romanticization or patriotism, and Men Behind The Sun is as realistically horrifying as it gets. If a viewer wishes to watch this film, I would recommend only watching it once, as the images and effect of Men Behind The Sun linger in the mind for years to come.