NANJING, China -- The shooting for the movie begins each day at 7 a.m., but by 6:30 a.m. people are already crowding the fences around the Zhonghuamen, the largest of Nanjing's medieval gates.
The young people come to catch a glimpse of the --ing actor who plays the leading role. But the older ones are here to glimpse a rare airing of their history, the re-creation of an event of nearly 60 years ago, one so colored by politics and national pride that it is usually shrouded from view.
The subject of the movie is known in the West as the Rape of Nanjing, a six-week massacre that began Dec. 13, 1937, when Japan's Imperial Army slid into barbarism. Japanese troops killed tens of thousands of Chinese soldiers who had surrendered and tens of thousands of civilians, and raped tens of thousands more.
In the letters they sent home, Japanese soldiers boasted about contests to kill the most Chinese with samurai swords.
China was governed at that time by the Kuomintang regime -- the Nationalists, not the Communists -- and Nanjing was China's capital. By violently subduing the capital, Japan hoped to terrorize all of China into submission.
Nanjing, however, is strangely devoid of memorials to those events. The monuments are dedicated to Communist Party members who suffered under the Kuomintang; the one memorial to the massacre is a small, threadbare museum far from the center of the city.
Indeed, victims were warned against speaking of their experiences. The government encouraged survivors to speak out only after 1982, when a controversy erupted over Japanese efforts to whitewash the war in school textbooks.
But even now, police discourage unsupervised meetings with foreigners. Before approved meetings take place, party members remind the Nanjing victims not to talk about demanding compensation from Japan -- in order not to affect relations between Japan and China.
Also, sensitive portions of the Kuomintang archives, left in Nanjing after the Communists won China's civil war in 1949, are still off-limits. Thus, 58 years after the massacre, few people have an accurate idea of how many Chinese died.
Change in atmosphere
But the making of a movie is a sign that the artificial freeze is ending.
For director Wu Ziniu, the government has been both a help and a hindrance: It approved the movie, and the government censors didn't touch the script -- but the government did not contribute any money.
"You'd have to say they're supportive," Mr. Wu said, "but they think funding is something we should solve ourselves."
He has been helped by the infamy of the massacre among Chinese living abroad. Most of the money has come from Taiwan; meanwhile, the shooting of another film about the massacre has just been completed in Hong Kong, and historians in Hong Kong have opened a Nanjing massacre "bulletin board" on the Internet.
In the United States, a documentary filmmaker has unearthed footage of the massacre from archives at Yale Divinity School.
"In China, it's very orchestrated -- it's a foreign policy issue," said Yang Daqing, a Harvard University historian from Nanjing. "But for overseas Chinese it's a symbol that Chinese people are rallying around."
Because of their ambivalent handling of the massacre, the Communists have risked being seen as too subservient to Japan, according to Mr. Yang.
The government has reacted by launching a national curriculum called "patriotic education," emphasizing China's glories and sufferings, including the Nanjing massacre.
But survivors complain that China's Communist leaders have never taken the massacre very seriously.
Massacre survivors recall Communist authorities wanting them to remember only their suffering under capitalists and landlords; the massacre was said not to matter, unless it could be cited to embarrass Japan.
Communist China's founding father, Mao Tse-tung, once only half-jokingly told a Japanese delegation that the Communists really ought to thank the Japanese for their invasion: Without it, the Kuomintang wouldn't have been so fatally weakened that it lost the civil war.
One of Mao's lieutenants later renounced Chinese claims to war reparations.
"What right did they have to renounce our claims?" a 75-year-old survivor said. "They won't even allow us to pursue personal claims against the Japanese."
A sign of the survivors' frustration with authorities is the petition sent each year to the National People's Congress, China's parliament, asking for compensation. When the Congress opened earlier this month for its annual session, 10,000 survivors asked for payment in recognition of their suffering.
The government has yet to mark the site of a mass grave. And it accepted money from Japan -- not to build a memorial, but to refurbish a tourist site, the medieval city wall.
"If they care about donating money, we suggested they build a small stone tablet growing out of the earth on the site of a mass grave on the outskirts of town," said Gao Xingzu, a retired Nanjing University professor who is one of the leading Chinese experts on the massacre.
"There's still no memorial to the massacre," he said, "even though thousands of bones were dug up when the new observatory was built on the site."
Even research into the exact number of dead has been thwarted. The accepted figure in China is 300,000; this number, however, comes from a 1947 show trial. Almost all independent historians suggest that that figure is too high.
Here, people insist the exact total is unimportant: No one can dispute that the massacre by the Japanese was just that -- a massacre.
The people of Nanjing have meanwhile taken the making of a movie to heart.
They have donated clothes and other 1930s-era props.
Han Baochu, for example, dug out clothes from her closet, donating them and $7 -- several days' pay -- to Mr. Wu, the director.
But Mrs. Han and her husband haven't been able to bring themselves to watch the extras, dressed in Imperial Japan's tan uniforms, storm the Zhonghuamen gate and enter the city.
"Countless people -- up here, down there -- were killed," she said, her hands sweeping the air. "The corpses so thick you couldn't walk.
"I know they're making the film, but I can't watch it. I can't stand it."