Angel of Nanjing by Jordan Horowitz and Frank Ferendo and Gatekeeper by Yung Chang are documentaries that address suicide and suicide prevention in China and Japan, respectively. More specifically, each film is set in one of the most popular, if not the most popular, sites for suicide in each country: the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge in Nanjing and the Tojinbo Cliffs in Sakai, Fukui Prefecture. Even more specifically, each film focuses on an individual who voluntarily patrols the site marked by suicides in order to prevent them and provide counseling; hence the films’ titles.
The ‘angel of Nanjing’ is Chen Si, while the ‘gatekeeper’ of the Tojinbo Cliffs is Shige Yukio. Chen began his volunteer suicide prevention work in September 2003, as he came to the realisation that there was an absence of support and/or efforts regarding the large numbers of suicides that annually occur on the bridge in Nanjing. Uncannily, that very same month and year in Sakai, Shige saw an elderly couple contemplating suicide at the cliffs and was able to speak to them about seeking help. Yet they would later send him a suicide note, thanking him for his help on the one hand and mentioning that the authorities did not do anything when they sought their help on the other hand, which prompted him to begin his own volunteer suicide prevention organisation in 2004 upon retiring. While Chen has (at the time of filming, at least) a full-time job during the week and is not a professional, he does have access to and collaborate with Nanjing University psychology students when it comes to providing counselling. In contrast, Shige has a rather professional background of having been a local, police academy-trained detective and was in the force for forty-two years before retiring. He is able to devote much of his time to his organisation and has a twenty-member patrol staff who work when they can, including his also-retired detective partner, Morioka-san. Regardless of their differing backgrounds, the two men are equal in their unwavering compassion for others.
Both Angel of Nanjing and Gatekeeper accompany their respective subjects as they go about their daily tasks of patrolling their respective sites, vigilant in looking out for possible suicide cases, and are therefore undeniably connected in their shared subject matter. Yet this shared quality is what allows for the differences between them to be all the more marked, at the level of style and tone. Such differences stem in part from the type of setting in question. The Nanjing Yangtze River bridge is in the middle of a buzzing metropolitan city and is witness to a constant flow of both vehicle and foot traffic, and all the noises and social encounters that go with it. Angel of Nanjing begins precisely with wide shots of the city and moves from the general to the specific, from the outside to the inside, into an apartment in which Chen Si and his wife are getting ready for the day, with the camera honing in on Chen and following him outside on his way to volunteer work. Once on the bridge, Chen is distinct from the flow of traffic by a long-sleeved bright orange jacket with ‘Cherish Life Every Day’ in Chinese and English on the back. Montages of city life and the people who bustle in it will prove to be a recurring motif, serving to not only reinforce the film’s setting but also help to characterise the aspects of his work and life that Horowitz and Ferendo chose to include and the documentary conventions used to construct their portrait of Chen and his volunteer work.
Horowitz and Ferendo employ a variety of documentary conventions, as if to reflect the busyness of the film’s setting. Through Chen’s intermittent voiceover early in the film on the interweaving issues of responsibility and preciousness of life, we learn why Chen began his volunteer suicide prevention work on the bridge. As he states at one point, ‘In our country, there are very few people who will listen to you.’ Through archival news segments interspersed with actual footage throughout the film, we understand the historical context of, and media attention given to, the bridge (most popular for suicides) and Chen. Through interviews with Chen, his wife, and those with whom Chen has established life-long friendships after he first spoke to them on the bridge, we realise how much he holds to his own statement that ‘The most important thing about rescuing people is dealing with the aftermath’ and, consequently, the national recognition of his work.
The core of the film, however, is Horowitz and Ferendo’s actual footage of Chen that illustrates his aforementioned statement and character. On the bridge, he is disruptive, if not outright aggressive, in approaching those whom he feels may be contemplating suicide (as he relates, during the first few years, he was slapped and cursed as a result.) When at The Soul Center, a place that he opened where those with whom he has come into contact on the bridge over the years can regain physical strength, communicate, and get counseling and whose expenses are paid by his regular job, he is the same. But regardless of location, what result are frank conversations about daily lives and struggles in the city, with Chen’s tone and words affable and understanding, even in their directness.
Chang’s Gatekeeper opens quite similarly to Angel of Nanjing in terms of moving from the general to specific, from the outside to the inside, in order to establish the surrounding environment of Tojinbo Cliffs, Shige Yukio, and their connection. The camera first presents the silent majesty of Tojinbo Cliffs and then Shige at home doing his own morning routine before heading off to the former. And like Angel of Nanjing, the film’s setting seemingly dictates Chang’s approach to capturing Shige at work. But herein lies the difference between the two films. Due in part to the small-town nature of the environment as well as Shige’s personality, the opening sequence establishes the film’s quiet tone. Though the area is a famous sightseeing spot, as footage of a charter bus and boat filled with tourists travel to/around the cliffs demonstrates, Chang presents a largely pensive observational documentary to register the local, semi-isolated sense of the area and the purpose of Shige and his colleagues’ presence there.
Though just as direct as Chen in asking a person about their mood, reason for being at the cliffs, or plainly about suicidal thoughts, Shige always maintains a more casual and gentle tone that is echoed by the film itself. The camera simply accompanies Shige alone or with a colleague or two on the cliffs and in the surrounding area leading to them, as they closely look out for potential suicide cases among visitors to the spot. If not outdoors, then the camera is observing Shige alone or with a colleague or two at the Heartfelt Oroshi-Mochi Café managed by Kawagoshi-san, sometimes in conversation with someone whom they have helped in the past and now have close ties; for the café doubles as Shige’s Tojinbo Nonprofit Organisation Support Center. In fact, the opening sequence segues to the next when, upon opening the café, Shige sits down to a conversation with a man whom he has helped before seeking his counsel. The beauty of the scenery and town is therefore constantly, mutedly cut with the dark issue of suicide.
Only occasionally does Chang include masked interviews, or more rarely sit-down interviews in a completely removed/neutral location. He reserves the latter for Shige, when he recounts the impetus for his suicide prevention organisation involving the elderly couple, and for Kawagoshi-san, when she talks about her parents’ suicides. Most often, Chang pairs the audio of an interview with actual footage in order to softly draw out a situation or one’s experiences and/or character. One of the film’s most effective instances of juxtaposition is the audio of Shige discussing how the community has been exploiting the cliffs as a popular suicide spot for tourism with footage of visitors walking over them and taking selfies. Bookending this sequence is one of the few instances in which the camera does not focus on Shige, when it is on board the boat that cruises around the cliffs and records the guide’s running commentary, which includes the fact that it is a famous for suicides. A matter of death as a tool to help keep a community alive.
Ultimately, there is a reflective and more nuanced depth, aesthetically and thematically speaking, to Gatekeeper that is absent in Angel of Nanjing. This difference is perhaps related to the fact that the former does not delve into Shige’s personal life or situation outside of his retirement status, choosing to focus on the cliffs as much as Shige, while the latter devotes substantial time to following Chen at home, at a karaoke bar, to his rural hometown of Suqian where his grandmother lives, and even on his blog. Chen is always seemingly on the move: at home, he could be speaking to his wife, cooking, speaking to someone whom he has helped over the phone, or on the computer. Angel of Nanjing, which has the advantage of a longer running time, then, really allows one to get to know Chen, past and present.
One of the news reports included in the film states that a majority of suicides are of people not from Nanjing. Chen himself is also not local, so he knows that place of struggle among migrants seeking employment in the big city. In fact, he links suicide several times to the increasingly palpable and widening gap between the rich and the poor, and the pressures that are born from this gap, in the country. Yet behind all his talking and moving about, one finds that part of Chen’s power of influence and counsel lies in how he does not take a holier-than-thou attitude. He is mindful of his imperfections and life experiences similar to those whom he has helped. Such an absence of a holier-than-thou mentality is further reinforced by his annual Christmas party, to which he invites all survivors and volunteers, in part to take away the social stigma and shame of suicide in China. Horowitz and Ferendo rightly include all such details in order to better relay Chen’s ordinary and extraordinary traits.
In contrast, outside of his former job, retirement status, and the reasons why he decided to organise suicide prevention services, Gatekeeper does not reveal much else about Shige; and the same goes for his colleagues such as Kawagoshi-san and Morioka-san. Yet in another sense, we do get to know Shige and his staff, individually and collectively.
If what makes Angel of Nanjing impactful is its plethora of expository details, then it is Gatekeeper’s reticence that makes it equally impactful but also just a little bit more memorable. For its visuals and subject cohere strongly, in the sense that both the film and Shige are working to find beauty and strength in the jagged and the sorrowful, and, reinforcing this point, the film is structured according to the passing of day into night. Indeed, the concluding sequence, which takes place in the darkness of night as Shige and his colleagues search for a young man whose behaviour caught his attention, makes one think of the force of Dylan Thomas’ line ‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light’ from his poem ‘Do not go gentle into that good night.’
Angel of Nanjing is available from JMAN.tv, the On Demand service of documentary distributor Journeyman.
Gatekeeper is available on YouTube from Field of Vision.