One of the legendary Cat III movies out of Hong Kong back in the 90’s tape trading circuit was a movie called The Men Behind The Sun which was a dramatic recreation of the World War 2 atrocities committed against Russian and Chinese prisoners of war at the Unit 731 compund. It is an uncomfortable, angry movie full of the sort of shit you associate with movies that carry that Category III black mark. Guts explode through a man’s anus, rats eat an actual live cat and the body of a real dead child is cut up in an autopsy. The very existence of this movie is amazing to me. Though, I understand. T. F. Mou, the director, is a crazed Chinese nationalist and the very idea of these sorts of crimes committed against his countrymen drove him to make a movie that casts the Japanese in a very vicious light. Unsurprisingly, Mou would follow it up a few years later with another historical gore epic, Black Sun: The Nanking Massacre which more or less puts the Japanese in the same position, but can you blame the guy? Do you know anything about these episodes in World War 2 history? It’s fucked up.
Apparently, one excessive movie about Unit 731 isn’t enough and Andrey Iskanov not only set out to make an English language movie about this horrifying piece of Asian history, but he thought that standard feature length wasn’t even remotely enough time to tell the story and decided that if anything, your senses needed to be bombarded by senseless, graphic brutality for four fucking hours!
I’m a bit of a history buff. I’m fascinated by periods of human history when we’re stretched to the breaking point and in order to survive, we’re forced to do things that we never thought ourselves capable of. This criteria makes World War 2 particularly interesting to me. Because of its sheer scope and because of the American school system, its very difficult to be a non-European history major and get the big picture of what was happening around the globe in relation to World War 2. In Philosophy of a Knife’s case, we’re talking about Russian and Chinese involvement and opposition of Japan in the years leading up to the Sino-Japanese War and Hitler’s invasion of Poland. Everything you see in the first half hour is context lending to the story of the establishment of Unit 731, Japan’s answer to Russia and Germany’s horrific and technically top-secret experiments on dissidents and criminals in the world of chemical and biological weapons. Brace yourself. You’re going to see some upsetting footage.
Philosophy of a Knife does something that I’ve seen few movies do. There is so much archival footage. Whatever is actually left over from these times. After the end of the war, The Russians couldn’t move fast enough to erase the memory of that horrifying location but Iskanov has assembled some actual film and photography of wartime atrocities all the while narrated by a key figure in the ensuing Khabarosk war crimes trials. But a simple documentary this is not. Intercut into the documentary footage are narratives from the perspectives of a 731 nurse and a soldier, who struggle with their innate sympathy for the victims of the experimentation as well as their cultural brainwashing that tells them that 731, though inhuman, is serving a greater cause to help the Japanese win the coming war with the West. It’s fascinating. This quality elevates it beyond the Men Behind The Sun comparisons. They’re telling the same story but taking wildly divergent paths.
At times, I am overwhelmed by the sheer degree of violence. When you have four hours on your hands to make a bloodsoaked document of one of the Second World War’s blackest times, you can indulge in the true horror of it all. Iskanov pulls no punches and while I’m sure 9 out of 10 people interested in the 731 topic will be turned off by the gore, to show this movie any other way would be dishonest. This is going to be a magnet for bad press among non-genre publications but I almost think that the exploitation logo that Philosophy is bound to receive would be better worn on a documentary that talks about the atrocities but skirts around the specifics. Philosophy, though saturated with some of the most sadistic scenes of torture, has a greater point to make. I’d be lying to myself if I didn’t admit that the movie was clearly made for fans of extreme horror but at the same time there’s an educational element above the voyeurism of no holds barred violence. It is important to know that this happened in such grotesque detail. Because of its sickening nature, the world would feel better if everyone just forgot about it but you know what they say about those forget the past.
Simultaneously, the claim could be made that a degree of social criticism found in all good horror movies is present in Philosophy of a Knife as well. With secret American prisons around Europe and the spectre of POW torture in Guantanamo Bay it’s not much of a stretch to link the movie with certain Bush administration policies and soundbites that assure us that there is no torture happening to enemy combatants on foreign soil. Everything that happens to them is all for the good of Homeland Security.
Visually, the movie is impressive almost entirely in black and white, the new footage receives the film damage treatment to match the grainy, poorly stored vault footage from the 40’s. It’s shot with an artistic attention to detail with many experimental touches to enhance the horror but at a runtime of 249 minutes, it challenges even the excesses of golden age Hollywood. Add to that the scenes of graphic torture and the movie becomes a gauntlet of suffering, a bonafide challenge to hardened gorehounds.
Though I can’t say that I have the tolerance for the violence that the movie puts on display in such explicit detail, I can’t deny the movie its merits. It is a simultaneously fascinating and shocking account, an exceptionally well researched document and a daring experiment in horror filmmaking. Unearthed Films continues to build on its reputation for releasing some of the world’s most unique underground horror films with the upcoming release of Andrey Iskanov’s, ‘Philosophy of a Knife’.
Philosophy of a Knife will be available July 8th from Unearthed Films.