Documentary ‘The Sinking of The Lisbon Maru’ has world premiere in Shanghai, highlight of international film festival
Published: Jun 14, 2024 08:51 PM

Documentary <em>The Sinking of The Lisbon Maru</em> holds its world premiere in Shanghai on June 14, 2024, the first day of the 26th Shanghai International Film Festival. (Photo: Lu Ting/GT)

Documentary The Sinking of The Lisbon Maru holds its world premiere in Shanghai on June 14, 2024, the first day of the 26th Shanghai International Film Festival. (Photo: Lu Ting/GT)

A thunderous applause erupts as the film ends. The cinema lights slowly brighten, illuminating the faces of many audience, with tears of emotion glistening in their eyes.

As a highlight of the 26th Shanghai International Film Festival (SIFF), documentary The Sinking of The Lisbon Maru held its world premiere in Shanghai on Friday morning. It was the first screening ("First Film") of the 26th SIFF that kicked off this annual festival for global film-goers.

It is a story interwoven with the cruelty of war, the brutality of the Japanese fascists, as well as the courage and humanitarian care of the ordinary Chinese people.

"I hope that together, we can share with the world this historical event, which had been submerged under the sea and denied by the Japanese military for 82 years," renowned Chinese filmmaker Fang Li, director and producer of the documentary, said at the documentary's premiere ceremony.

The Sinking of The Lisbon Maru reveals the long-buried truth of the 1942 sinking of the "Lisbon Maru," an armed Japanese cargo ship that participated in World War II. In October 1942, Lisbon Maru transported more than 1,800 British prisoners of war (POWs) from Hong Kong toward Japan, without bearing a sign indicating it was carrying POWs -- a violation of the Geneva Convention.

After being struck by a torpedo from a US submarine, Japanese soldiers, instead of trying to save the POWs, cruelly battened them down below deck, left them to drown, and even shot at them, leading to the deaths of 828 prisoners.

When the ship went down off the coast of East China's Zhejiang Province, 384 POWs were fortunately rescued by local Chinese fishermen, who pulled them from the water at risk of their own life.

Denise Wynne, daughter of one of the survivors Dennis Morley, attended the Friday ceremony in Shanghai, along with several other relatives of POWs on board the Lisbon Maru.

Wynne shared that one the most impressive parts of the film she thinks were the actual below deck shots when the ship had been torpedoed. "I felt horror for all those men. I think that will stick in my mind forever," Wynne told the Global Times after the ceremony.

"But [what also quite impressive is that], the heroism of the Chinese fishermen. They were just wonderful coming out when they rescued the prisoners of the war," she noted. "My dad always said that the Chinese fishermen were heroes, and without them, I wouldn't be here."

Wynne recalled that the tragedy left his father with a deep pain, as he would not talk about it until about seven years ago, when Fang's team visited him. Morely was one of the then probably only two alive survivors who appeared in the film in person. He passed away in 2021 at the age of 101.

Fang's team started making The Sinking of The Lisbon Maru in 2018. Over seven years, the team has continued to search for the wreckage and interviews with families globally uncovered the heartbreaking tragedy. The numerous precious face to face interviews, together with the historical scene animations in the documentary, vividly sheds light on a forgotten chapter in history.

The film's history consultant, British historian Tony Banham, was among early researchers into this historic incident. His book The Sinking of The Lisbon Maru: Britain's Forgotten Wartime Tragedy, was originally published in 2006.

At the ceremony, Banham shared that when he started writing the book decades ago, he found it was a forgotten story that "nobody was interested in." 

"I would have never dreamed that for me, this journey would take me to Shanghai 20 years later, not just by myself, but as a part of something so much bigger," he said, expressing his thanks to those who have contributed to this film. "[It is] one of the most emotionally draining documentaries I've seen in my life."

The Sinking of The Lisbon Maru was selected as one of the two heavyweight works being screened at the Premiere Gala unit of this year's SIFF, in terms of its both artistic and social significance, according to the festival organizers.

The 26th SIFF kicked off on Friday and will run until June 23. The 10-day festival features 53 screening venues across Shanghai, covering 47 theaters in 16 districts, and six theaters in five other cities of the Yangtze River Delta region in East China.