A woman is rooting through her garage, looking for Halloween decor she can repurpose for her daughter’s 5th birthday, which falls around the holiday. She retrieves a styrofoam grave marker that says RIP, purchased at Kmart 2 years prior but not yet used. Out of the box falls a note, a plea really, begging the recipient to turn it in to a human rights organization. The note details the abuses suffered by the man who made the decorative headstone; it is signed by a prisoner from China’s most notorious forced labour camp – Masanjia.
The woman is understandable freaked out but she complies with the note’s directive – she contacts Human Rights Watch but they are unresponsive. She goes to Kmart with it but they ballsily deny using labour camps, which are illegal. So she goes to her state newspaper, The Oregonian, and it publishes an investigative piece, and basically the story blows up from there – even reaching so far as China, where the people have to bypass a firewall in order to read western news. a man named Sun Yi is surprised to read the story and recognize his note.
Sun Yi had been released from the camp 2 years earlier, but is still haunted by the torture he suffered there. This documentary explores Sun Yi’s experience, the common labour camp experience. Director Leon Lee interviews prison guards, civil rights lawyers, and Sun Yi’s wife. Sun Yi suffered corporeally while in the prison, but his wife and their family faced raids, discrimination, and harassment on the outside.
Sun Yi is not a criminal. He’s a practitioner of falun gong, those slow exercise paired with moral philosophy that espouses tenants of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance – the mind body improved together. China’s communist party felt threatened by the sheer number of falun gong followers, and began persecuting them systematically. Since 1999, Sun Yi had been arrested, detained, or abducted 12 times. Pressure increased around the time of the Olympics (circa 2008) and Sun Yi was ultimately sentenced to two and a half years for being in the possession of printer paper, suggesting he’d printed materials about his beliefs.
To really understand the torture and the suffering of this labour camp, you simply must watch. Sun Yi is a wonderful subject but his stories are tough. His experiences are horrific. But this isn’t just about one man’s harrowing time. It’s about the effectiveness/ineffectiveness of news stories going viral; about paying attention to where and how things are made; about the China’s long arm and continued human rights abuses. Letter From Masanjia is the best kind of eye-opener, unsettling to its core.