Movie Review: ‘Letter From Masanjia’

'Letter From Masanjia.
'Letter From Masanjia." (Image Screenshot / YouTube)

Brushstrokes in black ink sweep across a sheet of white paper — this is the introduction to a compelling story about Sun Yi, a Chinese dissident. On the big screen at the Cinema Nova in Carlton, Victoria, Australia, it’s a full house and we are all in anticipation of what will happen next. Presented as a documentary, we are taken out of our comfort zones and are beside Sun Yi as he exposes the human rights abuses in China.

Leon Lee is the director of the documentary Letter From Masanjia. In 2018, this documentary received many awards: Calgary International Film Festival, Doqumenta Grand Jury Award, Atlanta Docfest, Tallgrass Film Festival, Top Twenty Audience Favourite Hotdocs, 41st Asian American International Film Festival, Docsmx winner, Chagrin Falls winner, Portland Film Festival winner, and Audience award at the Newbury Point Documentary Film Festival.

Please watch the trailer of A Letter From Masanjia:

The documentary begins with a family in Oregon and how the children remember when their Mom, Julie Keith, found an SOS letter hidden in a Halloween decoration. The letter exposes the cruel treatment toward people who are kept in a Chinese labor camp called Masanjia. The SOS letter explains the human rights violations at the labor camp and asks the person who finds the letter to give it to the appropriate government organization. Julie was not able to do this, but she found another way to help get the message across.

Masanjia was a re-education through labor camp situated in the Yuhong region of Liaoning Province, China. The camp opened on March 9, 1956 as a prison and was used for re-education — it was also known as the Ideology Education of Liaoning.

Two years passed and Sun Yi was released from the labor camp. By breaking through China’s Internet firewall, Sun Yi read the news from the West that someone had found his SOS letter. The SOS letter found in the Halloween decoration was reported in a newspaper. This report spread worldwide and exposed the forced labor conditions in China.

Sun Yi believed it was time to show the world, in movie form, what happened at Masanjia labor camp. He connected through Skype with director Leon Lee. Leon was recognized in China for his human rights work and would not be allowed to film in China. Thus, Sun Yi had to learn how to do the filming. We see Sun Yi walking through the streets in China as he purchases equipment to make his movie.

The documentary begins with the family in Oregon and how the children remember when their Mom, Julie Keith found a SOS letter hidden in a Halloween decoration. (Image: YouTube/Screenshot)

The documentary begins with the family in Oregon and how the children remember when their Mom, Julie Keith, found an SOS letter hidden in a Halloween decoration. (Image: YouTube / Screenshot)

Falun Gong was banned in China due to its being too popular, as an estimated 100 million people were practicing prior to its being banned in 1999. The leader at the time, Jiang Zemin, ordered the creation of a new security agency called the 610 Office to eradicate Falun Gong. After 1999, life was made extremely difficult for people who practiced Falun Gong in China.

Before 1999, Sun Yi took up practicing Falun Gong after seeing a group of people practicing the gentle qigong-type exercises peacefully in the snow. He thought it must be good because they could practice in such cold temperatures. Sun Yi’s wife explains to us how she noticed a great improvement in her husband after practicing Falun Gong — he gave up smoking and conducted himself with an improved moral character. Both believed they would be together for the rest of their lives. His wife could never imagine they would be separated because of his belief.

At a young age, Sun Yi had an interest in traditional Chinese graphic novels and to improve his drawing skills, he practiced in the book margins. To show us his experience at the Masanjia labor camp, he picks up the black pen and draws, giving you his impressions in vivid images.

Revisiting the camp with pen and paper, he talks to us as he draws. You can feel his fear and how his time unfolded at Masanjia labor camp, from when he first entered the labor camp and the scary job of working on the Halloween decorations. A letter from his wife gave him hope and the idea to write SOS letters emerged. Twenty letters were written and others in the camp helped him until they were caught. Thus, the true nature of the labor camp is revealed through the torture methods used to break the will of the inmates. Sun Yi draws his nightmare of being tortured along with the illusions he saw while bearing the most unbearable torture methods.

 Twenty letters were made and others in the camp helped him until they were caught and the true nature of the labor camp is revealed with torture methods used to break the will of the inmates. (Image: YouTube/Screenshot)

Twenty letters were made and others in the camp helped him until they were caught and the true nature of the labor camp is revealed with torture methods used to break the will of the inmates. (Image: YouTube/Screenshot)

Live footage of the Masanjia Labor Camp is shown and there is a mention of his lawyer, Jiang Tianyong, a human rights lawyer who is being arrested. The lawyer defended Sun Yi for being wrongfully imprisoned. It’s like you are there by Sun Yi’s side when he is notified by his wife not to come home because the police are ransacking their home and looking for him. Sun Yi decides not to go home, but is eventually caught by the police. His wife is called to pick him up from the hospital and he is in critical condition. After this incident, he fled to Jakarta. His family could then be safe and he makes a decision to leave his wife and live on his own.

The mother from Oregon often worried about the person who wrote the letter and about whether her actions in publishing the article may have caused more harm than good. Julie decides to make the journey far away from her family in Oregon to visit Sun Yi in China. She brings him a gift from her hometown and she is met with a bouquet of flowers.

Throughout the documentary, other people who knew Sun Yi comment on him and give us their view of him, talking to us about his inner strength and his good nature. Sadly, Sun Yi died and was found to have kidney failure. The family’s request for an investigation was denied. The ending of the documentary leaves you with Sun Yi giving a message of hope.

“This movie places you the audience in the front row seat to the turbulence faced by those oppressed. Sun Yi is a man that has been given the resilience and fortitude to stand for what he truly believes in (wow). For those who cannot or haven’t witnessed for themselves what a change one person can make need to watch this.” (Kerrie Dobrynski’s comments about Letter From Masanjia at the Cinema Nova in Carlton, Victoria, Australia.)

Sun Yi is a man that has been given the resilience and fortitude to stand for what he truly believes in. (Image: YouTube/Screenshot)

Sun Yi is a man who has been given the resilience and fortitude to stand for what he truly believes in. (Image: YouTube / Screenshot)

“This man who has suffered beyond words is a light for all, to be able to move forward and help others like he does, shows he has great values in his life that leads to helping and having thought for others. He was so grateful to the woman who exposed his letter in America, his heart was pure and when they finally meet in a foreign country, he gave her a bunch of flowers, which touched my heart, as this man was suffering financially, but he still managed to give this kind gesture to this woman who also had a compassionate heart to his story to the world. A letter from Masanjia is awakening the world’s people to step forward, unite together for our freedom.” (Janine Rankin’s comments about Letter From Masanjia at the Cinema Nova in Carlton, Victoria, Australia.)

This documentary about Sun Yi gave me a great insight to the labor camps in China with his message shown in his drawings. How he found hope in a letter from his wife that led to exposing the crimes in the Masanjia labor camp. Sun Yi shows us how one person can help free others as with the screening of this movie many people were released from the Masanjia labor camp. This is a movie you can keep in your heart. You can view Letter From Masanjia online or find out when the movie will be screened in your local area.

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