Judge Jesse Ataide warns you: if you're looking for Jackie Chan, you've come to the wrong place.
"In 1939, the last hope for thousands of Jews lay in the last place on Earth the Nazis would look."
In this post-Schindler's List era, it seems that cinema has been oversaturated with films depicting the horrors of the Jewish Holocaust, and it's easy to feel that all the stories regarding that horrific time period have already been told (and many times over, at that). Then a film like Shanghai Ghetto emerges as a reminder that that whole sad chapter in history is so massive, so complex, and so far-reaching that there will always be facets of the situation that will never be fully explored, let alone be given the attention they deserve.
Shanghai Ghetto is a documentary that recounts the story of several thousand Jews who fled Europe in the late 1930s for Shanghai, China, the only place on earth that didn't require a visa or other official documents for entrance to the country. After making the 4,000 mile trip to China's eastern coast, the immigrants quickly discovered that while Shanghai offered them a political haven safe from Hitler's influence, it was certainly not the paradise they expected. The already overpopulated city was not equipped to deal with the huge influx of desperate refugees that poured off of cruise ships on a daily basis. Despite massive shortages in both food and housing, however, this group of people managed to establish a vibrant (if impoverished) society, complete with synagogues, newspapers, schools, small businesses, and even athletic and social organizations.
The film then brings together several survivors to tell their stories and share their memories, which in turn brings the historical account to vivid life. All of the interviewees were children during their time in Shanghai, so their recollections tend to be tinted by the colorful memories of youth, which range from the amusing to the heartbreaking. One woman remembers laying out rice in the windowsills of her family's apartment and counting the bugs that emerged in the blazing heat of the Shanghai sun; with tears in his eyes, one man recalls being bullied by a local Russian boy and nearly killing him in revenge when the news of Germany's defeat finally reached Chinese shores. Though the hardships and triumphs of this group of people is compelling material in and of itself, it is the first-person accounts that provide the film its unforgettable moments.
On the commentary track, married co-directors Amir Mann and Dana Jankowicz-Mann explain that Shanghai Ghetto began as a "love project" based on the experiences of Dana's father Harold (who appears as one of the main interviewees in the film). This driving force manifests itself in several ways, for Shanghai Ghetto is a very straight-forward and rather conventional documentary that takes it subject matter very, very seriously. Though it holds the distinction of being narrated by Oscar-winning actor Martin Landau (Ed Wood), and features an original score by composer Sujin Nam (performed by violinist Karen Han, who also contributed to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon's mesmerizing score), it doesn't really do anything to distinguish itself from countless informative-but-merely-competent documentaries that run on PBS and the History Channel all the time.
That said, Shanghai Ghetto should be commended for not playing the emotion card that seems almost inevitable in films and documentaries of this nature. It never tries to manipulate its audience into having some kind of powerful emotional reaction. Instead, it takes the no-nonsense stance that "this is what happened, and this is what it was like," and proceeds to demonstrate this as accurately as possible through personal accounts, photographs, and film footage.
Shanghai Ghetto is presented full-frame with a Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo audio track. The quality of the picture varies depending on what is being presented on the screen—the interview segments look fine, but the archival material often displays the blurring effects of age and wear. Both English and Hebrew subtitles are provided.
The commentary by the two directors serves as the main extra. It is informative, providing context, background, and several additional stories that didn't make it into the final cut of the film. Additionally, there are three unused interviews presented (ranging from six to 20 minutes long), though it's not hard to figure out why they ultimately weren't included in the film. Rounding out the extras menu is a theatrical trailer, filmmaker biographies, and a rather comprehensive catalogue of other Docurama features, complete with trailers and links.
Though it lacks the razzle-dazzle of other recent documentary releases, Shanghai Ghetto is a very insightful look at yet another angle of the Jewish Holocaust. For interested parties, it's an absolute must-see.
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