The infamous war crimes of Unit 731 are revisited. Told in a narrative style combining archive footage, interviews, and graphic reenactments.
There’s no other way to say it, some horror films are an endurance test. Sometimes you have to force yourself to get through a viewing; at times it’s harder than others. Such is the case with Andre Iskanov’s 2008 film, Philosophy Of A Knife. This is a film that will test your patience, your sensibilities, as well as your stomach. Truth be told, this is one of the vilest films I’ve ever sat through. Not since A Serbian Film, has something tried so very hard to shock the senses. In some ways, it accomplishes this goal. This is also a product with almost no redeeming qualities; yet it’s also worth a watch – at least once.
Before delving into this exploitation film, here are some historical facts in case one might be wondering Unit 731 was. During the Japanese occupation of China during World War 2, a biological weapons research facility was established in Manchuria. This was a unit under the command of Japanese General Shiro Ishii. To say that the actions that took place at this compound were inhumane is a gross understatement. Whatever barbarous act you can imagine, whatever experiment you can imagine being performed on another human being, most likely took place. Nothing was off limits for the medical staff of Unit 731, from live vivisection, to forced injection of different diseases, which even included the bubonic plague. The victims of Unit 731 were Chinese and Russian civilians, called ‘Maruta’ by the Japanese. The term Maruta loosely translates to log, this allowed the victims to be dehumanized in the eyes of their oppressors. After all, one doesn’t feel guilty after cutting firewood, do they?
Naturally, events of this nature could make a very harrowing and disturbing film. Chinese filmmaker T.F. Mau’s The Men Behind The Sun is the best-known adaptation of these events to celluloid. Mau’s magnum opus is a commentary that provokes, shocks, and has a message on the indoctrination of youth into an ideology. It’s something to keep the memories of a historical event alive. There is no commentary in Philosophy Of A Knife. This film can easily be filed under the category torture porn. At the end of the day, that’s exactly what this film is, although it’s told in a style that sets it apart from many others.
Philosophy Of A Knife plunges us into the macabre and morbid world of Unit 731. A world told through the use of archive footage, an interview, and graphic reenactments. As far as presentation of fact goes in this one, it’s faithful to the backstory of what actually happened. The archive footage reminds us that these horrors were real, and not some elaborate imagining. Every now and again, an interview with a Russian eyewitness pops up to elaborate on the story in question. Although this pseudo-documentary approach lends this a small touch of credibility to the film, it’s greatly overshadowed by what makes up the bulk of the narrative.
Most of what makes up this film are the experiments of Unit 731. To be more specific, the graphic reenactments of said experiments. In an attempt to recreate the feel of the archival footage, these are shot and presented in black and white. This is where things shift from pseudo-documentary to torture porn. These scenes try to shock, and in some cases they do succeed. For the most part however, they just give you the feeling that the filmmakers are trying too hard. If I could use a proper term to describe them, it would be ‘excessive gross-out masturbation.’
They also do a very poor job at preserving any form of continuity. The one thing you’ll notice about them right away is just how vulgar they are. It’s really easy to see that they’re staged, and although they’re based on actual events, they have the appearance of outtakes from a snuff film. We’re given scenes involving vivisection, mutilation, teeth being extracted without anesthesia, and even forced sexual assault. These don’t help the narrative; they degrade it to the level of lowbrow filth. At the end of the day, this is the exploitation of historical fact for shock purposes.
Despite its many flaws, this is a film that’s worth at least one viewing, if you’re not too squeamish. It’s always interesting to see a narrative presented in a different way, especially one we’re not shown to often. At the end of the day, this is the one redeeming quality Philosophy Of A Knife Has. It’s not something to recommend to anyone, unless they’re obsessed with torture porn. However, expect this to be a hit in the future among those who love to be shocked.
Review by Jerome Reuter (@JeromeReuter)