PHILOSOPHY OF A KNIFE
This was one of the most
ambitious films of 2008, though few critics seem to have noticed. Itís a
history of Japanís notorious Unit 731, a WWII research facility that meted out
horrific torture to hundreds of Chinese and Russian prisoners. This film,
lasting four hours, mixes documentary and staged footage into an utterly unique
whole--though not an entirely successful one, Iím afraid!
PHILOSOPHY OF A KNIFE, four years in the making, was essentially a one-man
show by Russian filmmaker Andrey Iskanov, who wrote, directed, photographed,
edited and designed the film himself. His research was extensive, so much so
that Iskanov was detained for five days in June of 2008 and interrogated by the
FSB (formerly the KGB) as to where heíd obtained the documents used in his
Iskanov is best known for the experimental gorefest
GVOZDI (NAILS) from 2003, which received some positive notices when it was
released on DVD in the U.S. by Unearthed Films, who also co-produced and
distributed the present film.
The horrors of Unit 731 were previously covered in the notorious Japanese
film HEI TAI YANG 731, known in the West as
MEN BEHIND THE SUN. It inspired two sequels
and a 1995 follow-up by the same director called HEI TAI YANG: NAN JING DA TU
SHA, or BLACK SUN: THE NANKING MASSACRE.
In the 1930s the Japanese army, inspired by the examples of the German and
Russian militaries, creates Unit 731, a covert bio-chemical warfare research
unit. Situated in a small building amidst a snowy wilderness, Unit 731ís
overseers perform all sorts of unspeakable tortures on Chinese and Russian
prisoners. By this time World War II is well under way, and the unit does its
dirty work amid falling bombs and a constant sense of impending doom.
A woman has her teeth extracted with pliers in an
effort test the human threshold for pain. Another woman has a cockroach
released into her vagina and then is skinned alive to extract the still-living
roach. A man is put in a decompression chamber and literally explodes. Another
is stripped and tied to a pole in minus forty degree temperatures. You get the
Inevitably the war ends and the unit is disbanded. A
nurse who assisted in the experiments commits suicide and many of the unitís
doctors and soldiers are brought to trial in Russia. Yet itís acknowledged that
the hideous experiments carried out by Unit 731 were directly responsible for
Japanís medical pre-eminence in the years following WWII.
This film is definitely unique, and massively ambitious. Andrey Iskanovís
painstaking research into a subject that Japan and Russia have tried for years
to bury is admirable, and heís clearly got the talent to carry off this wholly
unprecedented project. I wish I could say it was fully successful in its aims,
but it isnít.
Viewing this film I couldnít help but flash back to MEN BEHIND THE SUN, a
more modest treatment of the crimes of Unit 731 that packs a far greater punch.
It works because of the straightforward simplicity of its horrors; PHILOSOPHY OF
A KNIFE by contrast is excessively labored and overdone.
Leaving aside the bad acting and oft-unconvincing special effects (created
and executed by the director himself), this filmís torture sequences simply
arenít all they could be. Iskanov insists on inserting things like scratchy
records blaring in the background of scenes and a woman playing a twanging mouth
instrument, which are distractions, and lessen the horror considerably. Quite
simply, nasty scenes like those depicted in this film donít need any added
ephemera to make their point.
Where the film succeeds is in its sheer progression of madness and
torment. The individual scenes may not always work especially well on their
own, but taken as a four-hour whole PHILOSOPHY OF A KNIFE is a remarkable
evocation of pure insanity, made all the more disturbing by the fact that itís
all solidly based in reality.
PHILOSOPHY OF A KNIFE
Director/Screenwriter/Cinematographer/Editor: Andrey Iskanov
Producers: Andrey Iskanov, Stephen Biro
Cast: Tetsuro Sakagami, Elena Probatova, Yukari Fujimoto, Yumiko Fujiwara,
Svyatoslav Iliyasov, Masaki Kitagava, Tatyana Kopeykina, Vladimir Kucherenko, Veronika Leonova, Maoush, Anatoly Protasov