A Taiwan filmmaker’s quest to gather accounts of WWII

By Zhou Yu Source:Global Times Published: 2015-7-16 19:55:02

Chen Chun-Tein visits a battlefield near the Yellow River in Shaanxi Province. Photo: Courtesy of Chen Chun-Tein

He only has time to talk to reporters at midnight, as he spent the rest of the day revising his work of the last 20 years.  He is Chen Chun-Tein, the Taiwanese creator of a 40-episode TV documentary Each Inch of Mountain and River is an Inch of Blood.  

The film is regarded as the most comprehensive Chinese documentary on the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression (1937-45). Since the documentary was premiered in Taiwan in the 1990s, Chen has continuously updated his opus, revising footage, sound-bites, narration and interviews. As a result, Chen, 75, has been dubbed the “Chronicler of the War.”

Forty years ago, Chen was a totally different person. Known as the “Great Gatsby” in Taiwan, Chen was streetwise and a quick learner. In the 1970s, he worked at Taiwan Television, the island’s first TV station, producing entertainment shows. He made shows featuring the island’s most famous celebrities and won a slew of TV awards. But he didn’t want to be Gatsby.  He was looking for a challenge.

Challenges were nothing new to him. 

Born in Fujian Province in 1940, Chen’s father was a Kuomintang (KMT) soldier and his mother a devout Christian. His childhood was poor and desperate. In order to make a living, he followed the KMT army to Taiwan. Not long afterwards, both his father and his brother – who had stayed on the Chinese mainland –  committed suicide due to their connections with the KMT army. Chen and his mother were separated across the Taiwan Straits for 30 years until they were reunited in 1983. 

Despite how famous he became and the success he had in the TV business during the 1970s, his childhood experiences pushed him to search for his family’s own identity.  

Challenge of a lifetime

He found the challenge he was looking for in 1994. Chiang Wei-kuo, one of former Taiwan leader Chiang Kai-shek’s two sons, visited Taiwan TV and asked Chen to make a documentary about the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression. 

Chiang told him that the documentary had to be truthful and that he wouldn’t accept any censorship. Chiang said to him: “If my Dad (Chiang Kai-shek) did something wrong, you speak out truthfully.” 

The most difficult part of making the documentary was gathering primary materials. Unlike Western armies, which had photojournalists that recorded battles, the Chinese forces were so poor they didn’t have cameras, let alone dedicated photographers. 

To get the facts about the dead, Chen turned to the living – capturing on film as much oral testimony from veterans as possible. 

Chen divided his 20-strong documentary team into four groups that each went to different places – the Chinese mainland, Taiwan, the US, Japan – to interview veterans. Chen insisted that the soldiers had to have been present at the actual battles they were talking about. 

Chen interviewed 700 veterans in total. Today, 95 percent of the interviewees have passed away.

He also interviewed 70 Japanese soldiers. They were in their 80s and sought forgiveness for the atrocities they committed in China. “Those Japanese veterans were very sincere. They all apologized before the camera,” Chen said. 
However, people’s memories are notoriously unreliable. After each interview, Chen would check, compare and cross-reference his materials. Some KMT soldiers had fought twice in the same city during different wars: against the Japanese and against the Communist Party of China. Chen double-checked their words against books, other soldiers’ accounts, and even with the weather reports about a particular day of fighting. 

The first edition of the documentary premiered in 1995. After that, without any further funding from the government, Chen felt the need to constantly release new editions in order to make it more accurate. 

Chen says he feels the need to make sure his documentary appeals to both younger and older audiences.

“Japan occupied and ruled Taiwan for 50 years. Many of the elder generations in Taiwan were not interested in the war. Nowadays, young people learn history from videos and photos, instead of books. I need to do it well so that they want to watch it,” Chen said. 

Playing no games 

Chen has received little financial help from the Taiwan authorities. The regional government asked Chen to modify and revise the documentary according to their ideological guidelines, but he refused to accept censorship in return for financial help. “The last thing I want is censorship. I have worked in the TV sector for so long. I won’t play any more games.” 

When Chen came to the mainland to produce documentaries related to the war, he also faced various restrictions.

 “I had to face the question of judgment on red lines. There were some things I could say and some things I couldn’t.” However, Chen cherished the chance to shoot a documentary on the mainland. “This means a Taiwan TV producer could make something on modern Chinese history acceptable on both sides of the Taiwan Straits. This is a incredible progress,” he said. 

According to news reports, Each Inch of Mountain and River is an Inch of Blood will be shown on China Central Television in October, but Chen told the Global Times that it won’t be shown due to an “unavoidable accident.” 

Personal revelation

Over the last year, the media in the Chinese mainland media outlets have delivered more reports on the battles fought against the Japanese invaders by the KMT, but their emphasis is mostly on individual battles or individual KMT generals. For Chen, that is far from enough. 

“War is so complicated. Every soldier, every general, every battle is connected. The causes and effects of war are linked together. What I am doing is describing an era,” he said. 

After two decades of research, Chen has had a revelation. The war was catastrophic for the Chinese people. The large scale migration involving tens of millions of people it caused created something good: a great national integration of different regions and ethnic groups. Northerners migrated to the south, while easterners moved to the west. 

“The biggest and hardest puzzle for both sides across the Straits has been figuring out what it means to be Chinese. The blood spilt by millions of people during the war should clear our minds to regain our national dignity. One word of truth is heavier than the whole world,” he said. 
Newspaper headline: Memories of war

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