Finish year

Past Continuous —James T. HONG talks “Opening Closing Forgetting”

  • Taiwan Competition

What was your motivation to make a documentary about Unit 731, or what led you to the topic?

At first, I was focused on making one about the Japanese and Chinese governments and the differences between how they describe things in textbooks and construct their histories. That’s what piqued my interest. Later, when I was traveling between China and Japan, I came upon the victims of germ warfare, and so I turned my attention to them. Unit 731 and germ warfare weren’t included in Japanese history textbooks, so most Japanese know nothing about them.


Do you think your identity as a Chinese-American influenced how you approached the topic of Unit 731?

In the past, an American professor studied germ warfare for the government and wrote a book about it. That book was translated into Chinese and published in China, so naturally, a number of Chinese began to learn about this part of history. In the final analysis, my Chinese-American identity undoubtedly puts some limits on the subjects I can shoot—we’re not white, so there’re a lot of topics in Western countries that we’re not allowed to touch; only white people are allowed to make films about “universal truths.” Us Asians, Indians, Black people, and so on, we’re only allowed to make films about or discuss our own histories and cultures. This is a problem that still exists to a large extent and has yet to be resolved.


You spent four years shooting, from 2007 through 2011. What was your motivation to reshoot?

I found some Chinese-Americans and Hong Kongers, and their organizations provided me with financial support. In the past, they took care of comfort women, but now most of those women have passed away. A lot of films talk about comfort women, but very few mention victims of germ warfare. Members of their families were killed by the Japanese during World War II, and that’s why they’re willing to support this kind of film.


I’ve heard you say that making this documentary was challenging—was that because of the funding, problems you encountered in China, or the time it took? Why do you want to keep going?

Although it did take a lot of time, I still didn’t accomplish my goal. They still haven’t gotten help, their lives are still very difficult, and so I’ll keep going. My goal as a director is not to make money. As a director, you have ideals, and you have to pursue them until you can’t go on. I know that I will continue to care about these victims and that I will keep going until I can’t because either they’re dead or I have no way to go there.


Do you think there’s been any closure on the issue of Unit 731 and their victims?

I don’t think so, and so I’m still recording things. I think the most important thing is the victims’ memories. History textbooks are not facts; they are shaped by propaganda, patriotism, or ideology. It’s better to hear history from the mouths of those who were there, and I’m still looking for other victims.


You’ve said that films need teeth and to use words and philosophy as weapons. What are your thoughts on more aesthetic experimental films?

I’ve made experimental films before. You could say that every film is an experiment because the director doesn’t know whether it will be a success or not. Maybe most experimental films are somewhat a waste of time or money, but some are good.


You’ve said that the mission of this film is simple: to show that the Japanese used germ warfare, and to be a violent counterbalance to (state) violence.

All films are a kind of symbolic violence. Why is this one violent? Because it is criticizing the Japanese government, and they haven’t admitted that they did this kind of thing.


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