This Hong Kong shocker has attained near-legendary status among extreme movie buffs, and is indeed a shocking, traumatizing film. It’s also a profoundly exploitive one whose intent to expose a little-know chapter of WWII is largely obscured by all the voyeuristic nastiness.
Unit 731 was an actual research facility controlled by the Japanese military during World War II. The unit was responsible for some of the most heinous war crimes of all time, torturing and executing hundreds of Chinese and Russian prisoners in various horrific ways.
MEN BEHIND THE SUN (HEI TAI YANG 731; 1988) has caused a furor in nearly every country it’s been exhibited in. A two-minute scene of a live cat devoured (for real) by scores of rats was cut by British censors, and the film as a whole has never been commercially distributed in the US.
It unsurprisingly inspired three sequels, 1992’s MEN BEHIND THE SUN: LABORATORY OF THE DEVIL, 1994’s MEN BEHIND THE SUN 3: A NARROW ESCAPE and 1995’s BLACK SUN: THE NANKING MASSACRE, a.k.a. MEN BEHIND THE SUN 4, directed by the original film’s helmer Tun Fei Mou. The atrocities of Unit 731 were further explored in the Russian PHILOSOPHY OF A KNIFE (2008), which despite a 4-hour running time falls short of the impact of MEN BEHIND THE SUN.
This film spans the final year of so of the notorious Japanese Unit 731, a bio-chemical research facility active during WWII. Led by General Isii, a respected military surgeon, the unit is set up in a claustrophobic facility in occupied China with scores of Chinese and Russian prisoners as its research subjects.
In the first of many atrocities, a young boy, one of the “Junior” team of pre-teens inducted into Squadron 731, is shot trying to escape the facility. Next a young woman has her hands frozen and the hardened skin callously broken off by one the squadron’s researchers. Several prisoners are tied to stakes and hit with biologically contaminated shrapnel (with predictably gruesome results). A man is put in a decompression chamber, where his body puffs up and forcibly ejects his large intestine.
A young boy is lured into the compound where he’s chloroformed–and then dissected. Animals don’t fare particularly well either: a live cat is thrown into a roomful of teeming rats that literally devour it.
Inevitably the Unit’s activities are thrown into turmoil by the end of WWII. Believing his experiments are integral to Japan’s survival, General Ishii carries on for as long as he can, but finally breaks down. He orders the surviving prisoners shot and/or gassed and the Unit’s facilities destroyed. He and his minions then escape on a departing night train.
As a history lesson MEN BEHIND THE SUN isn’t exciting or particularly revelatory. As a suspense thriller it fails completely, since outside the sadistic General Ishii none of the characters make any impression. Nor is the film at all well made. It’s wildly uneven and often downright clumsy, not to mention lurid and exploitive in its lingering depictions of flesh rending and bloodletting.
It excels, however, as a straightforward exercise in shock. Director Tun Fei Mou’s lack of finesse actually benefits the torture sequences, which are presented without the distracting stylistic quirks that lessen the impact of director Andrey Iskanov’s Unit 731 shocker PHILOSOPHY OF A KNIFE. MEN BEHIND THE SUN may be a so-so movie, but it’s a first-class shocker, with at least two guaranteed lunch-loser scenes that hit with the force of a thunderclap.
MEN BEHIND THE SUN (HEI TAI YANG 731)
Director: Tun Fei Mou
Producer: Fu Chi
Screenplay: Mei Liu, Wen Yuan Mou, Dun Jing Teng
Cast: Hsu Gou, Tie Long Jin, Zhaohua Mei, Zhe Quan, Gang Wang, Runsheng Wang, Dai Yao Wu, Andrew Tu