The Asian equivalent of Europe’s Nuremberg Trials gets a rare screen workout in “International Military Tribunal Far East,” a largely absorbing attempt to put the Chinese p.o.v. on the post-WWII kangaroo court. Specialized content and spin, plus a melodramatic out-of-court story that runs parallel, makes this of interest mainly to Asiaphile auds who will recognize many of the star cast. However, especially in its judicial scenes, pic has an elemental, cinematic sweep that makes first-time feature director Gao Qunshu a talent to watch. The $3.75 million production goes out Aug. 15 in China, on the anni of Japan’s surrender.
The highly politicized Tokyo Trials, which lasted April ’46-December ’48, have spawned a multitude of books, but only two major films, both with conspicuous slants. Masaki Kobayashi’s exhaustive four-hour docu, “The Tokyo War Crimes Trial” (1983), posited the U.S. was equally guilty of war crimes (e.g. Vietnam) during the 20th century; more recently, the right-wing funded “Pride” (1998), helmed by Shunya Ito, presented chief defendant (and former wartime prime minister) Hideki Tojo as a devoted leader battling Western imperialism.
From the get-go, “Tribunal” puts the backroom focus on the Chinese trial judge, Dr. Mei Ru’ao (Hong Kong thesp Damian Lau) who protests he should be seated next to U.S. judge William Webb (Daniel Ziskie), as China was the second signatory on the official surrender document.
Though most of the judicial material is in English, the film has very little of the clumsiness that often affects such productions, and both Lau and Ziskie make their characters fascinating combatants, the former quietly dignified, the latter patiently procedural. Once the trial begins, the focus switches more to the Japanese defendants, especially the unrepentant Tojo (Akira Hoshino).
Scenes between the gruff Tojo and impassioned U.S. chief prosecutor Joseph Keenan (John Henry Cox, in the role played by Scott Wilson in “Pride”), mediated by wily Japanese defense lawyer Hisao (Koji Koike), are the highlight of the movie. They’re capped only by the final backroom sequence in which the judges argue out the righteousness of whether to apply the death sentence.
Between times, the pic digresses into a parallel strand meant to play out postwar tensions in a family setting. Main character here is Xiao Nan (Taiwanese F4 boy-bander Chu Hsiao-tien), a reporter for left-leaning newspaper Da Gong, who stays with a Japanese family and eventually uncovers a right-wing plot to assassinate Mei. Confusingly told, and uncomfortably mixing Japanese, Taiwanese and Hong Kong thesps (including Kelly Lin as Xiao Nan’s Japanese g.f. and Eric Tsang as her repentant ex-military brother), these sections distract from the main judicial game.
Notably, Mei, though repping China’s then-Nationalist government, is portrayed as a simple patriot. Pic shows no interest in internal Chinese politics of the time, even though the trial was directly influenced by the U.S. postwar strategy to make Japan a bulwark against China’s growing swing toward Communism.
Helmer Gao, previously a successful director of TV drama series, makes the most of the splendid main set, with the camera swooping over the courtroom and music bringing a raw power to emotion. Smart editing keeps a large cast in the audience’s eye, and period design and costumes look spot on. Docu footage is sparingly used throughout.
Pic won the Jury Prize in Shanghai’s Asian New Talent competition. Print caught was without end credits.