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Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that there is only black and white, no grey areas; there is only choice A or choice B – you can either take the red pill or the blue pill. When it comes to the argument of historically accurate versus exploitation films, one can only be one or the other, not both. On one side of the spectrum, you have one of the biggest and most respectful historical movies of all time, Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, based off the true story of Oskar Schindler. The film is full of very strong and realistic violence, but the viewer never feels it to be disrespectful to those that actually endured that era in human history – the same could also be said of his Saving Private Ryan – with an opening scene full of gore that rivals some of the goriest horror films.
Now, let’s venture to the other side of that spectrum, to the dark, and often distasteful, realm of exploitation films. Exploitation films are films that do exactly what their title states – they exploit – be it via sex, with all the rape/revenge films (I Spit on your Grave being one of the most infamous) or all the ‘women in prison’ movies (not EVERY female inmate is a lesbian, you know), or be it via violence, ranging from the Mondo ‘shockumentary’ films such as Faces of Death, to the Italian Giallo films, such as most of Dario Argento’s library (there are several other types of exploitation, Google that shit). It is in that mix of violent exploitation films that one can find Men Behind the Sun – a 1988 film, directed by one Tun Fei Mou, which showcases the atrocities the Japanese military Unit 731 did to the Chinese during WWII, all in the name of medical research.
Right off the bat, let’s start off with the gore, for this is indeed GoreZone – and this film does not disappoint in that area one bit. Our first atrocity is that of a woman prisoner trudging along with her cohorts through what can only be described as the planet Hoth – snow everywhere, low visibility, a possible Imperial droid somewhere – and her crying baby. Just to set the tone of the film, the crying baby is snatched away from her by a Japanese soldier, thrown in the snow, and buried alive with snow kicked over it as it’s cries become muffled – cruel, yes, gory, not in the least – what else you got for me Jason?
Well, let’s get right to one of the most iconic images from the film – the frostbite experiment. A maruta (a derogatory name used to de-personalize the test subjects) is out in the cold, and has her bare arms doused with water, exposed to the harsh cold weather of Hoth, or China, whatever, and left to watch icicles form as they completely freeze over. The arms, once visibly frozen, are then aggressively struck multiple times with a bayonet – then, more water is added, and the rattled arms are left to freeze again, stated to be for many hours. Then, in our money shot – a shot that will most likely haunt you for at least a week, the woman is taken inside, frozen-solid arms and all, and instructed to put her arms in a vat of hot water – wait, compassion? Nope, the lead doctor then in one swift motion grabs her arms at the elbows and RIPS ALL THE ARM AND MUSCLE TISSUE OFF in one pull, leaving her exposed skeleton on both arms – HOLY SHIT! You wanna know the REAL kicker to this scene? A REAL cadaver’s arms were used!
Moving right along to the next experiment, another poor soul’s hands are frozen white – think Simon Pheonix at the end of Demolition Man (you know you love that movie), and his fingers are actually chipped away like ice cubes from a sculpture when the lead scientist strikes them with a metal rod. The next experiment, as we are apparently on a guided tour, sorry, no gift shop, involves a woman, her presumed child, and a bird. Before your mind goes to that traumatizing video your friend showed you on the Deep Web, remember where we are. It turns out they are in a gas chamber, encased in glass so everybody can watch, and wouldn’t you know it, gas chambers are still fatal. I’m going to go ahead and rank dying with my child in a gas chamber while being observed by scientists with stop-watches (congratulations, you are data) really low on the list of ways I want to go out – probably between a Xenomorph bursting out of my chest, and exploding internally from eating too many spaghettio’s like the dude in Se7en.
Next up on our clearly exploitative-but-it-really-happened-so-maybe-it’s-ok-right?-footage tour is what looks to be the testing of claymore mines – you know, explosives with something akin to ball-bearings in them that get launched when detonated like a shotgun firing in every direction.
Our test subjects are basically crucified in a field, with what looks to be about 50-or so of their friends and loved ones, and BOOM. After the smoke settles, we see the damage – eyeballs hang out of sockets akin to the eyegasm scene in Hostel, legs and arms are blown off, and red becomes the new dominant color of the field.
Not to be out-done in the gore department, our next unfortunate test subject is placed in a pressure chamber. As if the tone of this film wasn’t obvious by now, one should know not to expect a happy ending for this gent – and rightfully so, when the pressure increases to the point where this human guinea pig shits out his own intestines (!) – think of that one zombie in Plaga Zombie who used his shitty colon as a weapon, now scold yourself for laughing, this is serious.
The gore reaches a new level when we get to the child autopsy scene. Now, this autopsy looks pretty damn real – you got yellow adipose tissue under the skin (something a LOT of gore movies leave out – do your research guys) and even get that glisten on the guts and innards – you know that REAL-guts glisten? It’s probably so realistic looking because this is, in fact, a real autopsy of a child. Take that in for a second. It turns out, the director actually GOT PERMISSION from the parents of a recently deceased boy, one who matched the description of a child in the movie, to film the autopsy – those are actual coroners you see in WWII drab performing a REAL autopsy! The guts and innards however were from local livestock, but STILL!
Surely it can’t get more distasteful than that…
It’s time we finally arrive at the infamous cat scene.
This is the scene that the majority of people get upset about – because it’s all fun and games in a movie about cruel medical experiments and genocide until an animal gets involved. So, basically, we have a crowded room of hungry rats, and a cat is thrown in the mix (for science!) The rats are then seen attacking and ultimately killing the cat. For DECADES equal numbers of people thought this was real, as well as fake – for surely it LOOKS real, but isn’t that the point of any good effect? The scene involves a real cat interacting with real rats – soon enough the red stuff starts coming out and the rats go into full Bruno Mattei’s Rats: Night of Terror-mode. The cat is seen howling, struggling, and ultimately getting super lethargic – surely this isn’t another Ruggero Deodato-moment in the history of film?
Well, debunked in a recent interview, the scene was apparently done using red-colored honey smeared on the cat, which the rats proceeded to lick/eat, giving the impression of making a bloody mess. So all the bleeding hearts and PETA nutjobs can calm down, this movie about GENOCIDE and ATROCOTIES done to human beings did not feature a cute cat getting killed…the rats however, are another story.
The rats were set on fire (what?!) and let loose to run out of a room – while actually engulfed in flames, their skin bubbling, their inner organs boiling to the point of exploding from the heat, and probably one of the most painful deaths there is, in a scene that is as real as it looks; however, the rats do not get equal sympathy (from those that still believe the cat scene is real), because apparently they are not as cute as the cat. When in reality, it appears the reason the cat scene dominates 9/10 of the IMDB message boards on the film is the fact that so many of the average filmgoers are so detached from nature that their household pets are the closest thing that resemble nature, therefore, there appears to be a stronger bleeding heart for animals (cats, not rats, because fuck rats, apparently) on film versus a fellow human being dying…in a film about genocide. It is actually this juxtaposition of opinion (people focusing solely on the cat scene instead of the several atrocities mentioned in this article) that has prompted director Tun Fei Mou to no longer address the scene in interviews, and rightly so.
So, recall earlier that, for the sake of argument, there was only historical or exploitation film – not both. That dichotomy was forced before reading due to the fact that this film actually created that grey area in-between those two ends of the spectrum – just like how Temple of Doom ‘created’ the PG-13 rating. This film, while really pushing the envelope on not only gore, but good verses bad taste, is firmly rooted in history – this shit REALLY happened.
Unit 731 really did exist, and they really did carry out chemical and biological testing on human test subjects. Estimates range up to the high end of 12,000 men, woman, and children that actually died from the horrible experiments, with approximately 70% of them being Chinese. Because this was clearly a place where ethics did not exist, pregnant women, infants, and even the elderly were used in these experiments, supposedly being completely dehumanized and referred to as ‘logs’.
Add to all of this the fact that director Tun Fei Mou went above and beyond while filming Men Behind the Sun, all in the name of accuracy – the film was shot in the very same location Unit 731 was stationed, with some sets consisting of the real rooms they portrayed, as well as an almost Kubrick-ian insistence on every actor actually looking exactly like the role they were portraying. Case in point, a lot of research and effort went into making this film true to the source – the same one can argue Spielberg did for both Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. One can also argue that, because most of the experiments that were portrayed on film actually happened, the film is rather historically accurate as well. Bad taste that it may be to portray the experiments in such gruesome manner, it was also very historically accurate – however, there is ONE aspect that pushes the film back into exploitation territory, and that is that the fact that the violence appears to be the MAIN character of the movie – it is the one thing the whole movie is centered around, there is no real plot or characters. Re-watch Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan again and note that there is an underlying story in both – be it the rise and fall of Oskar Schindler, or the search for the Ryan brother – the violence SUPPORTS the film, it is NOT the film, you dig?
That being said, and argued, Men Behind the Sun, while sometimes displaying poor taste in favor of shock, does need to be seen – this shit unfortunately DID happen, and since most records of Unit 731 were destroyed, this may be one of the most accurate representations of what really happened. It just so happens that because this movie created the grey area between historical and exploitation films, it can be, for lack of better word, enjoyed guilt-free by gore-hounds and, shit man, you actually learned something too – just stay away from the sequels!