Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Documentary Fortnight: Shonenko

It was by pure chance a Japanese teacher and his students happened across a monument to a group of Taiwanese boys killed during a World War II air-raid. When asked by his students what those boys were doing in Japan, the baffled teacher started researching, efforts that ultimately uncovered the history of the Shonenko: young teenagers from Taiwan (then a colony of Japan), lured to work in Imperial Japanese munitions factories. Their story is now documented in Liang-Yin Kuo’s Shonenko, which screens again this Saturday as part of the MoMA’s Documentary Fortnight.

While most of the Shonenko ranged from about thirteen to fifteen in age, the oldest recruit was a ripe old twenty-years of age. “Recruit” is probably too genteel a word for the Shonenko enlistment process. Though it was an ostensibly voluntary decision requiring parental consent, many surviving Shonenko tell stories of being physically browbeaten into “volunteering” by their Japanese teachers. As problematic as the Shonenko program was, strictly speaking, it was not slave-labor in the National Socialist tradition. They were in fact paid a wage more than competitive with the meager opportunities available in Taiwan. However, promises of opportunities to study while working in Japan turned out to be classic bait-and-switch.

Expecting a program billed as “work-study,” the Shonenko quickly found themselves toiling under highly regimented, military-like conditions. Of course, the biggest drawbacks were their worksites—some of the highest value targets for American bombers in Japan and the Philippines. For some Shonenko, things even got worse after the war. Though most were eventually repatriated after the occupational government realized they were there, some remained, living a twilight existence on the margins of Japanese society.

In later years, Japan also offered undesirable Shonenko the option to repatriate to Mainland China, which some opted for. In retrospect, this was a mistake. During the Cultural Revolution, being an ethnic Taiwanese with work references from the Imperial Japanese war-machine guaranteed profound suffering.

In the Shonenko, Liang-Yin Kuo found some very compelling previously untold stories, thoroughly but concisely related in a running time just over an hour long. Given the strength of her source material, her approach to documentary filmmaking is appropriately straight-forward, relying on the power of its interview segments and dramatic archival photos. It is effectively supported by Hungarian composer Tibor SzemzĹ‘’s mournful flute score.

Shonenko is a surprisingly epic story about stolen youth. For most of the nearly 8,500 boys in question, it would be a crime that would irrevocably alter their lives. It is a fascinating film, worth seeing when it screens again on Saturday (2/21).