Both Ends Burning

Dennis Lim on The Sun Behind the Clouds and City of Life and Death

Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam, The Sun Behind the Clouds, 2009, color film, 79 minutes. Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama. Photo: Jaimie Gramston / White Crane Films.

THE NEW DOCUMENTARY The Sun Behind the Clouds (2009) crystallizes a question that increasingly besets the half-century-old Tibetan struggle for independence: Is a more militant brand of activism possible when the leader of your movement is also a universal symbol of peace? Officially adopted in the late 1980s, the Dalai Lama’s “middle way,” calling not for total independence but instead for cultural and political autonomy, has made no headway with Beijing, and seems more than ever like a dead end to many younger Tibetans.

In The Sun Behind the Clouds—a companion piece to their 2005 fiction feature Dreaming Lhasa, about a Tibetan-American documentarian working among Tibetan exiles in northern India—filmmaking couple Tenzing Sonam and Ritu Sarin focus on the tumultuous events of 2008, a charged year for Tibet-China relations, with protests breaking out in Lhasa and a global spotlight trained on China, which had pledged to improve its human rights record in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics. Using that spring’s large-scale march through India to Tibet as its backbone, the film recounts the uprising and crackdown within Tibet (with some surreptitiously shot footage) as well as the demonstrations from Free Tibet activists and counterdemonstrations from Chinese nationalists as the Olympic torch made its way around the world. The degree of access to the Dalai Lama, interviewed at length, might suggest an unquestioning hagiograpy, but the filmmakers are acutely aware—as is the Dalai Lama himself, it would seem—of his defining dilemma: the perhaps irreconcilable difficulty of being both a spiritual and a political leader.

At the Palm Springs International Film Festival in January, The Sun Behind the Clouds suddenly became a diplomatic flash point when the Chinese authorities withdrew the most critically acclaimed Chinese film of 2009, Lu Chuan’s City of Life and Death, in response to the festival’s inclusion of Sonam and Sarin’s documentary. In a sly, nose-thumbing bit of metaprogramming, The Sun Behind the Clouds is playing as a late replacement at Film Forum for City of Life and Death, a chronicle of the atrocities carried out by Japanese troops at Nanjing in 1937, which was dropped from the program last month reportedly because of an unresolved deal between the producers and the American distributors.

City of Life and Death is the most high-profile of the films that have emerged around the seventieth anniversary of the massacre at Nanjing: The American documentary Nanking opened in 2007; the German-produced John Rabe, about the German businessman (a figure in City of Life and Death) who created a safety zone for civilians, is due in American theaters this spring. With his sober, harrowing, black-and-white war epic, Lu has given the Rape of Nanking, which the author Iris Chang termed “the forgotten Holocaust of World War II,” its own Schindler’s List (spiked with, in the clipped opening battle scenes, bits of Saving Private Ryan). Lu is a little less sentimental than Spielberg, and just about as accomplished a technician; while his movie induces some familiar unease around the representation of atrocity—the simplification of genocide and the fog of war to melodramatic plot points and stark moral conundrums—there is also a relative discretion and a haunting clarity to the filmmaking, especially in the largely wordless first act.

Lu, whose previous film was the Tibetan neo-Western Kekexili: Mountain Patrol, has stated that his goal is objectivity, which he sets out to accomplish mainly by making City of Life and Death an ensemble piece. The characters include a variety of heroic and not-so-heroic locals—a resistance fighter (Liu Ye), a teacher-turned-protector (Gao Yuanyuan), a traitor who redeems himself (Fan Wei)—as well as a Japanese soldier (Hideo Nakaizumi), who is both perpetrator and, gradually, horrified witness. This is a clear break from previous Chinese films about Nanjing, which have insisted on the monolithic evil of the Japanese, but it can also be taken as a reflection of the shifting relationship between China and its increasingly important trade partner Japan. (City of Life and Death went through a painstaking, and by all accounts minimally invasive, approval and censorship process.) While there’s room for argument over whether the film’s attempts at balance are bold and responsible or cynical and schematic, some Chinese apparently find Lu’s approach nothing short of treasonous: He has received death threats from those enraged by what they consider an unduly sympathetic portrayal of the Japanese aggressors.

Political maneuvering has created an unfair association between City of Life and Death (which for now still has no US distributor) and The Sun Behind the Clouds, but there are some links worth pondering here: one film in which China is portrayed as a victimizer and another in which it is portrayed as a victim, both in their own way fuel for the ever-burning fire of Chinese nationalism.

The Sun Behind the Clouds plays March 31–April 13 at Film Forum in New York. The filmmakers will be present at several of the screenings. For more details, click here.