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  • Independent Biographical DocumentariesThe Year in China
  • Chen Shen (bio)

Recently, the number of independent documentaries has grown rapidly in China. In the 1990s, independent documentaries usually focused on life and social problems at the bottom of society, reflecting the producers' personal concerns and suspicions about mainstream presentations of reality. These early independent documentaries, however, were supplements to mainstream documentaries, and mostly coarse productions, with barely sufficient narrative or editing skills, and little public influence. Many of them also had very limited releases, appearing in the cinema for only one day due to their unattractiveness. Recently, however, several independent biographical documentaries represent a major advance in the field, displaying not only their producers' brilliant conceptions and shooting techniques, but also arousing a great deal of public discussion. Among them, Twenty Two, The Verse of Us, and The Last Stickmen of City Chongqing are good examples.

Twenty Two is a documentary about Chinese sex slave victims in World War II, the first movie released publically on this subject in Mainland China. The documentary was shown on August 14, 2017, and earned 170 million Yuan, a record-breaking box office. It has generated intense discussion on network forums and positive commentary from many movie reviewers. A biographical documentary seldom draws so much public attention—and even less often does one generate profits as high as more commercial movies.

The success of Twenty Two resulted from its content, its narrative strategies, and its mode of transmission. The director Kuo Ke had already made a 43-minute documentary entitled Thirty Two in 2012, which records the story of survivor Wei Shaolan and her Japanese son Luo Shanxue. Thirty Two won some international film awards and raised viewer interest in the topic, but it could not be released at that time. Wei Shaolan's story was representative of the thirty-two living Chinese survivors in 2012. Two years later, when Kuo Ke restarted the project, only twenty-two were left. The director went through Heilong Jiang, Shanxi, Hubei, Guangxi, and Hainan provinces, interviewing all of these survivors; Twenty Two is [End Page 28] a documentary designed to preserve the memory of these women. It is estimated that there were 200,000 or more victims. Only eight were alive when the film was shown, and even fewer today.

The survivors' testimony was videotaped, and preserved important first-hand oral history records of the women. The director asked all the victims to talk about their traumatic experience. Most were about 90 years old, and their neighbors, and even their children, did not know about their humiliating personal history before. To avoid receiving special or different treatment from others, most victims refused to talk about their experience. Many silent frames appear on the screen, and only a few women tell relatively complete stories. Mao Yinmei talked about her childhood in Korea. Abandoned by her mother, she was then caught and forced to be a sex slave. She could still remember some Japanese words. Lin Hailan talked about her heroic deeds, including stealing the enemy's bullets and stealthily transporting them to the Chinese army. She also described the violent behavior of the Japanese at the station. Li Meijin provided some details about Japanese atrocities in her village, and her relationship with her husband after coming back from captivity. But most survivors remained silent in the scenes, or collapsed during their narration.

To record their current living conditions, the director shot their daily lives, including activities such as cloth-washing, cooking, and entertainments with other old people. Most of these women, however, have lived lonely and dreary later lives. Their current bad conditions and the past interact to create this unfortunate destiny. The director also interviewed family members and others who helped the survivors during these later years, reflecting different aspects of their lives. Korean cameraman An Shihong expressed his sympathy for the women's current living conditions, and claimed his purpose for interviewing them was to make more people aware of their situation, and therefore provide support. Chen Houzhi, a farm worker who had spent sixteen years helping these women and collecting materials for a lawsuit, nevertheless felt that asking them to remember their traumatic experiences was a...


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