Ginger Nuts of Horror
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MEN BEHIND THE SUN (1988)
T.F. Mous, Hong Kong/China, length varies depending on cut
Welcome back to Film Gutter, and today we're continuing classics month with another one of those extreme movies that has come up many times in the comments and messages about the series we're embarked upon. We've spent a fair amount of time in Japan already as part of proceedings here at Film Gutter, but today's we're headed to near neighbours China for the story of one of the most shocking real-life incidents of the Second World War. This is the retold tale of Unit 731 – this is Men Behind the Sun. Another movie to be highly criticised for its violence and exploitative content, MBTS has suffered at the hands of censors in Australia and Japan and also been criticised for animal cruelty and the use of real autopsy footage.
Throughout the movie, we follow a newly inducted youth corps in Unit 731 at one of their many secret bases. The place is home to many experiments, carried out on the 'maruta' – basically prisoners they have captured and consider nothing more than material for their sick tests. As the youngsters gradually become more and more aware of what is going on at the camp, the divisions between them begin to emerge as humantarianism and military duty begin to clash. Under the cruel leadership of Shiro Ishii, the Unit works to develop a highly potent strain of bubonic plague to employ in biological warfare and turn their flagging role in the ongoing conflict to victory. But the experiments do not stop there – other efforts include tests exploring resistance and damage done by heat and cold, air pressure, crucifixion and much more.
In all honesty, there are only three or four scenes here that genuinely caused me to be upset or shocked, most of which concern the experiments conducted beyond the biological. With that said, there's still plenty in this movie to leave you feeling perturbed. The fact that this is a true story out of history adds a sheen of horror, and to watch the individuals so calmly and casually watching on as mortal wounds are inflicted, hideous diseases are injected, deadly gas is inhaled by innocent people and body parts explode beyond the flesh has a chilling value all of its own. Gang Wang in the lead role as Shiro Ishii is utterly believable as the leader with the iron fist, and doubtless a borderline psychopath to boot. The acting from the youngsters who form the meat of the story is not always great, but they are uncertain kids in a horrific environment, so it kind of works for them to look and seem so unsure of themselves.
How does Men Behind the Sun compare to some of the other masterpieces of extreme then? Well, it certainly doesn't dare go as far in the human sense as last week's focus A Serbian Film but the atmosphere of desperation in the face of a conflict turning against them and the grim, morbid determination to continue their efforts to the very end is certainly powerful. The new recruits are ideal as leads really, because they are a common sense angle – many of Unit 731's veterans are so inured to what they do that a rational human face is pretty well an essential. The two infamous scenes with the rats and the cat (I don't want to spoil those too much!) definitely leave a bad taste though, and are on a par with some of the footage from the two Nekromantik films. If I was to offer up a main criticism of the movie, there's a long section of the film that comes after the experiments have finished, which feels rather overdone. By the end it's hard to have a great deal of sympathy for any of the characters involved, which I'm sure is deliberate on behalf of the director, but it doesn't really leave you much to root for in those closing stages.
RATING: 6.5/10. After everything I had heard about this movie, I was fully ready to be absolutely horrified, and this happened occasionally. But that's not why I'm giving it a pretty mediocre rating – the pace of the movie is awkward, the opening and closing seem an effort to make the film truly historical that doesn't really carry throughout proceedings, and the characters we follow are pretty unlikeable and there's little belief that any of the 'maruta' will escape the hell they find themselves in. For all those reasons, it's a 6.5/10 here.
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