In the summer of 1999, everything changed for China’s seventy million or so Falun Gong practitioners. Introduced in 1992, the spiritual movement had grown rapidly by emphasizing common sense ideals: truthfulness, compassion, and morality. However, due to its size and independence from the state, the Communist Party grew wary; 1999 marked the beginning of a long propaganda-based smear campaign that saw the movement outlawed and the practitioners persecuted. Millions were jailed, as a torrent of human rights violations ensued. Among those practitioners was Sun Yi, the subject of director Leon Lee’s gripping new documentary, Letter From Masanjia, which details the story of Sun’s resilience in the face of overwhelming torture, as well as the remarkable twist of fate that led to the making of the film.
In 2008 Sun was sentenced to 2 ½ years in the Masanjia Labor Camp, a hotbed for imprisoned Falun Gong known for its brutal conditions. One day he witnesses a group of disheveled inmates emerge from a building, with gravestones and “skulls, thighbones, and things like that” in tow. The sight immediately frightens him; he is told they are members of the Eighth Team, workers of the “ghost job”. Eventually he is assigned to the team and discovers that the bones are merely replicas—Halloween decorations to be exact. Noticing the packages are marked in English, he assumes the decorations are to be sent to either the U.S. or Europe and secretly begins crafting SOS letters to sneak into the boxes. Remarkably, one of the letters turns up years later in Damascus, Oregon, when Julie Keith opens a gravestone decoration she had bought two years prior at a Kmart.
Needless to say, the “message in a bottle” aspect of this story stands on its own. It’s as unbelievable a story as can be, with so many things needing to go right to get to this point. Ultimately Sun made around twenty letters; to this day only one has been found. Lee could have easily been content with just reiterating the story for viewers. Instead, he uses it as a springboard to delve deeper into the man behind the letter and his diligent battle against an oppressive Communist regime.
The portion of the film that details Sun’s time in Masanjia is brought to life via the use of animation, all of which is based on his own concept art. The art style is reminiscent of one of my favorite films, Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir. Though it doesn’t quite lean into fantasy like that film does, it effectively communicates his dire situation. After a letter he lent to an inmate is found by a guard, the facility resorts to torture to get people to disavow Falun Gong. The first person tortured disavows in ten minutes; Sun is tortured for over a year and never gives in. A particularly affecting moment in the film comes in the form of an interview with a former guard. He talks about his admiration for Sun, and tearfully says despite his meek appearance, Sun is the strongest man he has ever met.
The strongest element of the film though is his relationship with his wife of twenty years, Fu Ning. The scrutiny that Sun’s beliefs bring upon her ultimately leads her to file for divorce while he is in Masanjia, which he surprisingly understands completely. All he wants is for her suffering to end. She sends him a letter explaining her intent to separate, and he cherishes the letter like a soldier would a photograph of a loved one, reading it every day, going so far as to tape it so it wouldn’t fall apart. During her interview, Fu breaks down and mentions that she would often look at the moon for comfort, saying, “Maybe the moon is the only thing both of us could see. Even though we’re not together, we could both see the moon.” It’s incredibly moving and adds another humanistic layer to the film.
The last part details Sun’s retreat to Indonesia, after his home is raided by the police. There he seeks asylum and continues to stay in contact with Lee. Lee arranges for Julie to visit and the two bond over their shared history. You really get a sense for how astonishing the whole sequence of events is when Sun reads the letter he wrote years ago. His affection for her is thoroughly apparent, as he says he has come to view her like family.
Then the film delivers the final punch in the gut: two months after being contacted by a suspected Chinese secret agent, Sun dies under mysterious circumstances. After a tale of such heroism, it almost feels unfair. It ends on final note from Sun, as he says, “I’d like to tell the world, millions of people in China are still suffering persecution. But in the end, justice will prevail over evil.” The man deserved so much better. At the very least, Lee has delivered a wonderful capsule to remember him by.