Thursday 12 October 2017

Movie Review: Purple Sunset

China, August 1945.

Two days after the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, and in accordance with the Yalta agreement, the USSR declared war on Japan and invaded northern China, the Japanese puppet state of “Manchukuo”, and Korea. This act, it has been persuasively argued, was far more devastating to the Japanese war effort than the two atom bombs, and was the single precipitating factor that forced Japan’s surrender.

The vaunted Japanese Kwantung Army – the largest and most prestigious of all Japanese army groups – shattered like porcelain before the Soviet onslaught. As the Japanese forces in China dissolved, and the world war ended, two other wars began. One was the Chinese Civil War, which had been interrupted by the Japanese invasion a decade earlier but now broke out again in full force. The other was the Cold War, which – as anyone knows, and all pretences otherwise notwithstanding – is still going on to this day.

That is history. But there is much more to history than just the headlines.

The Japanese war crimes in China and Korea are among the most astonishingly underreported and unknown things about the Second World War. As the Japanese advanced through China in 1937, raping, killing, and destroying (not necessarily in that order) everything in their path, they began an odyssey of sadistic violence which far exceeded in cruelty and numbers anything achieved by the Nazis in Europe outside the USSR. A quarter of a million civilians were massacred in Nanjing after the Chinese capital had fallen. The entire Korean peninsula was turned into a source of slave labour for Japan, administered by Korean turncoats. The Japanese medical experiment centre, Unit 731, murdered more people, in more depraved ways, than the German Nazi doctors like Josef Mengele (“the Devil Doctor of Auschwitz”) ever did – and got away with it, in fact being rewarded with positions in US universities in return for handing over their experimental data.

There is an excellent reason why to this day if there is anything China and the two Koreas agree on, it’s their mutual hatred of Japan and their determination that Japanese militarism must never be allowed to raise its head again.

And yet to this day Japan, while acknowledging its war crimes against Western prisoners of war* does not admit or acknowledge what it did to its fellow Asians. And for some reason that undoubtedly has absolutely nothing to do with Cold War imperatives and anti-Korean/anti-Chinese strategy, the West has never attempted to compel it to.

[*In The Other Side Of Tenko, his memoir of life as a Japanese prisoner of war from 1942 to 1945, Len Baynes specifically mentions that while the Japanese were bad, if “half the tales told by some of our men about the way they treated the ‘wogs’ were accurate, British colonial policy between the wars was as bad as the Japs at their worst.”]

Acknowledged or not, the war crimes were real enough. And as the Soviet tank divisions slashed across the plains of Manchuria in August 1945, crushing the Kwantung Army under their tracks, the Japanese army turned on the Chinese in one last orgy of violence. Civilians of all descriptions were swept up, casually murdered, and their corpses dumped in rivers; machine gun squads massacred entire villages before the Soviet forces could reach them; and young Japanese, many of whom had absolutely no desire to participate in this war in any way, were jammed into uniforms, informed that it was their duty to die for the Emperor, and sent off to do their share of killing.

This is the story of three people during those days of August, seven decades ago.

Yang is a Chinese peasant in his late twenties or early thirties. When we first see him, he is among a mass of Chinese civilians, roped to each other and being marched along to be slaughtered by a Japanese machine gun squad in front of a wall. The rest of the civilians are murdered, but before Yang himself can be killed, Soviet forces which have broken through the Japanese lines arrive and annihilate the Japanese. Yang, the only survivor, is put into an armoured personnel carrier along with Soviet wounded and a female medical officer, and packed off to the Soviet headquarters somewhere along the shifting frontline.

As we see later in flashback (the backstory of all the three main characters is revealed in flashback) Yang is in this position because his home was invaded by Japanese troops on one of these murderous missions.  All they found were Yang himself, and his aged mother, whom they tied to posts. The officer in charge ordered one of his young troops (a bespectacled schoolboy scarcely taller than his rifle) to bayonet the old woman, and beat him until, face covered with blood and tears, he complied.

While other Chinese dead were being tossed into a river in sacks – or being burned alive for sport – Yang and other survivors were marched off to be shot. As the only survivor of his village, Yang literally has nothing left.

The armoured personnel carrier has, as I said, a female medical officer. This is Nadia, whose Russian is so clearly enunciated that I could understand almost all of it without needing subtitles. Her flashback reveals that her son was killed in a Nazi air raid when a shot down German plane crashed into the playground he was in. And that is it for her family as well.

As the armoured personnel carrier tries to look for the headquarters among unmarked roads in the North Chinese plains, the driver takes a wrong turn and blunders into a Japanese base. In the ensuing firefight, all the Soviet troops are killed except Nadia and the driver. They and Yang manage to escape into the forest, and decide to try and find their way back to the Soviet lines. In the middle of unknown territory, this is easier said than done.

Walking through the forest, they come to a bridge, on the other side of which is a guardhouse. It’s apparently deserted, but as the driver crosses, someone inside throws a grenade at him. He retaliates by riddling the guardhouse with submachine gun fire, and kicks down the door to find...two Japanese schoolgirls. One of them commits suicide at the sight of him with a bayonet, but he captures the other. And, deciding that she can be their guide out of the forest, they take her with them, gagged and at the end of a rope. Her name is Akiyoko.

Flashback: Lines of young people in the rain, girls on the left, boys on the right, listen as a Japanese officer screams at them about how they are all “soldiers” now, not students, and their only duty is to kill their enemies and die for the Emperor. Akiyoko, whose father has been conscripted and likely dead, and her lover, Onishi, are in different lines, listening. Shortly after, he is taken away along with other recruits while Akiyoko, slipping and sliding in mud, runs after them, crying. But the lorry vanishes in the distance, leaving Akiyoko standing in the mud, and soon afterwards it’s her turn as well.

As the four march through the wilderness, they get into a minefield, and the Soviet driver is killed. Nadia and Yang, suspecting Akiyoko of having deliberately led them into the minefield, nearly kill her, but finally decide to spare her for the moment. At this point they all speak to each other in different languages: Russian, Mandarin, and Japanese, which create further confusion. They save her again, when she falls into a quagmire, and then, when a crashing Japanese aircraft starts a forest fire, she saves them by creating a firebreak – and reveals in the process that she speaks fluent Mandarin. It seems that she’s lived in China since the age of four and does not even know for certain that Japan is across the sea.

In a Western film, the plot would be straightforward from this point. The two older people, Yang and Nadia, would fall in love, and they’d adopt Akiyoko, and the three of them would live happily ever after. This is not a Western film, and the story is much more complicated than that. It is full of tender moments, as suspicion wavers and recedes, but never goes away; and spots of hope - but whose hopes are they? Can a Japanese girl have the same hopes as the Chinese her nation has massacred, and can a Soviet soldier have the same hopes as the two of them? 

No, it's not a Western film, and so it marches inexorably towards a dramatic and tragic conclusion. What that is I won’t tell you, but the film is right here, so you can watch it for yourself:

I love this film. I think it is superb, and almost as good as the Soviet film Come And See, which I rate the best war movie ever made. I find it incredible that it is not famous. I can only speculate that this is because it’s a Chinese movie about Japanese war crimes, which means that it’s dead on arrival as far as the Western media are concerned.

The acting is excellent from all three main leads, with nuance and expression. Most of the Japanese soldier parts are overacted, but given the film that is excusable. The direction is good, and the scenery is indescribable. There are a few historical inaccuracies – while there was one last Japanese kamikaze attack after the surrender, the planes were flown by volunteers and never hit any target, much less an American aircraft carrier – and Japanese hand grenades of the period did not work in the way depicted in the movie. These are not important quibbles.

I strongly recommend that you watch it.

[Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5. I never give 5 out of 5 because nothing is perfect.]

Tuesday 10 October 2017

The Terminal Beach

It was still night, and cold, when Jesme felt herself being shaken awake.

She shook her head, trying to get rid of the sand in her hair, and opened her eyes. “What?”

It was her mother, she could tell that, though the older woman was just a dark shape silhouetted against the stars. She touched a finger to Jesme’s lips and bent over her. “Quiet. Come quickly.”

“What?” Jesme repeated, but more quietly. “Has a ship come?” She felt stupid as soon as the words were out of her mouth. Of course a ship had not come.

“No,” her mother hissed. “It’s food. Come now.”

“Food?” The word felt alien on Jesme’s lips. When had she last had food? Two days? Three?

“Yes,” her mother said, pulling at her arm impatiently. “Come quickly, now. Or they’ll go away.”

Jesme stumbled to her feet. The night air was cold, the wind off the sea making her shiver in her thin dress. The smouldering remnants of most of the few scattered fires had long since died down to glowing embers. “I’m coming,” she said. “You don’t have to pull me so hard.”

Her mother barely seemed to notice. “I hope they haven’t already gone,” she muttered. “They wouldn’t give me enough to bring some back for you. They said you had to be there.”

Jesme peered at the ground, trying not to trip. Things were scattered everywhere. Some of it was what people had brought with them, sometimes for hundreds of kilometres, and then, finally, thrown away, bundles of clothes, battered aluminium utensils, packets of certificates from schools long since abandoned to spiders and scorpions. Jesme knew those things well – she still carried her own certificates in a polythene packet tied to her dress by a cord. It was one of the last things they had left, since her mother had traded the last brass pot for half a chicken for them to eat.

That was the last thing they had eaten, that half a chicken along with some dried grain. Jesme had tried to keep the taste in her mouth as long as she could, but it had faded and even the memory had gone with it.

There were other things on the sand as well, including people. Jesme lifted her feet high to avoid treading on them. Most of them were probably still alive, and trying to sleep. And if they woke, they would wonder where she and her mother were going, and might want to follow.

And if there was food, that wouldn’t do at all.

Once, not that long ago, Jesme had liked sharing. She’d regularly given away whatever she had to anyone who wanted. Now, of course, she knew better. She knew enough to hide what she had to herself, except for her mother. And someday it might come to it that she would hide it from her mother as well. She could see that day coming, and knew it would be the end of the Jesme that she’d been all her life. What would come after that, she had no idea, and she was afraid of finding out.

The dry rough sand under her bare feet gave way to smooth hard wet. Her mother was almost running, pulling her by the arm. “They’ll have gone,” she was muttering. “I took too long to find you. I should have insisted they give me the food.”

“Who?” Jesme asked, but there was no response. She hadn’t expected any. The sea was now close, the heavy oily water slurping against the old concrete walls of the buildings that were now underwater. Over to the right she could see the string of yellow lights from the high buildings which still stuck out of the ocean. There were people living on them, using solar panels to make electricity and eating what they could catch from the sea. Some of the beach people had fashioned a raft and tried to reach the buildings the day before yesterday; the people on them had fired at them, and shot them off the raft, one by one.

But apparently, though they did not want anyone coming to their buildings, they were willing to come over to the beach. Jesme saw them at the same moment that she heard her mother’s relieved mutter. There were two of them, squatting next to the hulk of a boat pulled up on the sand. One of them stood up and beckoned impatiently.

“We thought you weren’t coming.” His voice was rough and heavily accented, as though the language was foreign to him. Perhaps it was. Jesme couldn’t see his face in the dark, just the faint reflection of light on a bare scalp. “Is this your daughter?”

“Yes. I told you she needed food.”

“So you should’ve brought her sooner, or we’d have gone. What were you delaying for?”

“Give her the food, Ulod,” the other man called. “It’s not as though you’re making it any faster by blathering on.”

“Shut up, Tilas.” The bald man, Ulod, handed out something to Jesme. “Here, girl. Eat. Make it fast, we don’t have all night.”

It was smoked fish, salty-sweet and chewy. Jesme’s mouth worked, teeth grinding frantically, her stomach clenching in its eagerness to feel the food inside it. Her mother was watching her anxiously.

“Don’t eat too fast,” she said. “You’ll get a cramp.”

“Here’s water,” Ulod told her, “if you want to wash it down.”

The water was tepid and tasted of plastic, but it was water. Jesme drank it too quickly, and felt a painful bubble of air trapped inside her stomach. The fish was finished, quicker than she’d realised. She handed the empty bottle back.

Tilas got up and stretched. He seemed younger than the other man, taller and more thickset, with a bushy head of hair. “Was it good?” he asked.

“Yes, thanks.” Jesme managed to tease a few fibres out from between her teeth with her tongue. There was a gap between her teeth which she had been supposed to get braces for, but that was back in the old time. “It was tasty.”

“Right.” Jesme’s mother suddenly seemed impatient again, and tugged at her arm. “Let’s go, Jesme.”

“Go?” Ulod asked. “What about payment?”

“You’ve already been paid,” Jesme’s mother snapped.

“For your food, sure. But what about her food?” Ulod pointed. His forefinger, almost touching Jesme’s nose, was tipped by a nail that was split and the colour of slate. “It’s not free, you know.”

“It isn’t,” Tilas agreed. He wandered over past Ulod and prodded at Jesme’s breast through her thin dress. She flinched at the touch. “Why did you think we asked you to get her here?”

Jesme’s mother slapped his hand away. “Run, Jesme,” she said, pushing Jesme so hard that she almost fell down. “Run and hide somewhere, quickly.”


“Go!” her mother shouted, and slapped her. It was the first time the older woman had ever hit her. Jesme started in shock, and then, as Ulod reached for her again, she took off running.


It was midmorning, and Jesme’s mother had still not appeared.

Jesme had run until she could no more, and then thrown herself down and tried to hide herself by burrowing in the sand. She’d lain like that for a long time, for hours, until it was light in the east, over the city behind the beach. Then she’d gone back down to the beach, cautiously, ready to flee. She’d found the empty plastic bottle, and the crumpled paper packet which had held the fish, but there was no boat and no trace of her mother. She’d looked out at the buildings half-submerged in the sea. They were like broken teeth, the teeth of some gigantic beast gnawing at the land. She could imagine eyes looking back at her, and suddenly she’d wanted to cry. But there were no tears left to let fall.

In the harsh sunlight the air was like fire, and what little beauty the beach had at night had long since vanished. It was more crowded than ever. More people had arrived at dawn, attracted by the hope of ships.

A couple, the woman heavily pregnant, sat down next to Jesme. “We’ve been walking for ten days,” she said. Her face and limbs were skeletal, making the huge bulge of her belly look bizarre, as though it was a tumour consuming her. “There’s nothing left, no food, nothing.”

The man, whose eyes were sunken so deep that he seemed to be peering out at the world through twin tunnels, jerked a thumb landwards. “The city people, they’ve put barricades of barbed wire and concrete slabs to stop us. We had to give them everything we had to let us pass.” He glared accusingly at Jesme, as though it was somehow her fault. “Somebody said that they hadn’t done it when you all came.”

“No, they hadn’t,” Jesme had replied. She’d been desperate to get away from these two, the woman with her obscenely distended belly and the man with his tunnel eyes, but she had no idea where else she might wait for her mother. “When we came, they just told us to move along. They didn’t do anything like that.”

“Their time will come,” the man said. Deep in the hollows of his sockets, his eyes glittered with anger. “The sea will rise more, and the water will give out, and the food will give out. Then the fighting will come to them as well, and it’s they who will be sitting on the beach in rags, waiting for the ships. You wait and see.”

Jesme said nothing.

“We’ve nothing to pay the ship with,” the woman said eventually. “We had to give away everything. Do you think the ship will take us without any payment?”

“None of us has anything left, Auntie,” Jesme told her. “All of us are hoping the ship will take us.”

“If there is a ship,” the man said, echoing Jesme’s unspoken thought. “Are there ships, girl? Have you seen them?”

For a moment Jesme saw red. “My mother’s lost,” she wanted to scream. “I nearly got raped for a mouthful of fish, my mother’s lost, and you think any of this would have happened if there had been a ship? Do you think any of us would have still been here if there had been a ship?” But she bit her lip, took a deep breath, and waited until her voice was under control. “I haven’t seen a ship,” she said, “but there was a man who said there was a ship just leaving when he’d arrived.” She didn’t add that the man had been half insane from fever and had later wandered out to sea and drowned. “He said it was badly crowded and that it would be a while before another came.”

“We’ll have to wait.” The woman reached out suddenly and grabbed Jesme’s arm. “I like you, girl, you’re at least human – more human than any of the others. Will you do something for me?”

“What?” Jesme tried to free her arm with an experimental tug, but the woman’s grip was strong. “What do you want me to do? I have nothing.”

“You don’t have to give me anything,” the woman said quickly. “Not at all. It’s just that...” She patted her swollen belly. “This is due any day. Maybe today. If – if I die having it, you know, you can see what it’s like here. If I die having it, will you take it? Take it along with you on the ship, and bring it up?”

Jesme stared at her, and then a great bubble of laughter came rising out of her, slowly at first and then uncontrollably, until she was shaking with laughter and tears, pointing down at her own ragged dress. “This is all I have,” she managed. “I don’t even know what I’m going to eat today, or if I’ll be alive this time tomorrow, and you want me to take your baby?”

“But,” the woman began, “listen...”

“No, you listen.” Jesme was still laughing, but now the tears were of anger. “You don’t know who I am, I don’t know who you are, we’re all of us on a beach dying of heat and hunger, and you want me to promise to do something I literally can’t? My mother told me not to lie.” At the thought of her mother she began crying harder, shaking with sobs.

“Let her go,” the man snapped. “You can see she hates us.”

“I don’t hate you,” Jesme said. “But don’t ask of me what I can’t give.”

“No, you hate us,” the woman said. “I can see it.” She dropped Jesme’s arm and climbed to her feet. “I hope someday you find yourself in my position, that’s all.” She tried to spit, but had no saliva to spare. Leaning on the man’s shoulder, she wandered off down the beach.

Jesme sighed and tried to wipe her eyes on the hem of her dress. And then she discovered that the packet of certificates was gone. At some point in her panicked flight of the night before it had fallen off.

What did it matter anyway, she thought bleakly, and stared out at the heavy, sluggish sea. What did anything matter anymore?

After some time she went down to the water and splashed it over herself.

Far out to sea, a cloud drifted by, and she watched it go.


The sun was a red and orange ball of fire touching the waves when Jesme’s mother returned.

She came trudging up the beach, her arms wrapped around herself, and sat down beside her daughter. For a while she said nothing and replied to nothing Jesme asked.

Eventually she stirred. “I’ve got some fish,” she said. “Would you like to have it now or later?”

Jesme’s mouth moved. “Later,” she whispered. “Not now. Not now.”

Jesme’s mother nodded. “Tell me when you want it. It’s all for you. I already ate.”

“Where have you been?” Jesme asked for the third or fourth time.

“Out there,” her mother said eventually, without making any attempt to explain what that meant. “They asked me to go back again, but I said no. But they were still generous enough to feed me, and give me some for you.”

“Generous? They’re evil.”

“No. They’ve got to survive, just like the rest of us. In their position we might not have been so kind.”

Together the two women, the young one and the younger one, watched the sun sink into the sea. “Mum,” Jesme said eventually. “Where will these ships take us? To a country where people treat us like those two last night? Is that all there is?”

Jesme’s mother shrugged. “What else is there?” she said. “We can’t keep walking any further. The ships are all we have left.”

Jesme remembered what the insane man had told her about the ship, a blocky rusting box of steel with so many people aboard that they were literally perched on the railing along the sides. “And the ship will come? There will be a ship, won’t there, mum? It’s not like the whole world is like this, is it?”

“Of course,” Jesme’s mother said eventually. “A ship will come. Tomorrow, maybe. Tomorrow a ship will come.”

“I lost the certificates,”  Jesme said.

Her mother sighed. “Certificates don’t matter anymore. Education doesn’t matter anymore.”

Somewhere, not that far away, there was a sound. Jesme turned her head away from it, and pressed her hands over her ears. It was a newborn baby, crying.

“Then what matters?” Jesme asked.

“Survival,” her mother replied. “Survival.”

Copyright B Purkayastha 2017