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Angel of Nanjing

A Film Review

Angel of Nanjing
Directed by Frank Ferendo, Jordan Horowitz, Journeyman Pictures
China, 2015
1 hour, 7 minutes in duration
Mandarin with English subtitles

The film is available on iTunes and Amazon.
The trailer is available on YouTube.

Every person, every citizen, every life doesn’t have the right to destroy oneself. Only to protect this precious life.  Chen Si

That is what Chen Si believes. He believes it so much that he has spent every weekend since September 19, 2003 patrolling the Yangtze River Bridge in Nanjing, China to prevent people from committing suicide. In his 13 years of volunteer service he has saved over 300 people from jumping to their deaths.

Angel of Nanjing, a documentary by Frank Ferendo and Jordan Horowitz, does a good job of telling the story of Chen Si, not just as the man who rescues those in despair, but also of his personal life, his family, and how he himself copes with despair.

The fact is despair and loneliness are prominent problems in contemporary Chinese society, especially in urban centers. Chen Si says that most of the people he sees attempting suicide are “outsiders,” not local Nanjing natives. Outsiders experience a different kind of struggle in the big city, often feeling lost, not belonging, yearning for familiarity and family perhaps. According to the film, a third of all suicides in the world happen in China.

Preventing Despair

When Chen Si rescues people from jumping off the bridge, he doesn’t just send them home. He goes to great lengths to prevent them from going back to their old ways which could lead to another attempt. He will usually take the person out for a meal and talk them through their problems. Sometimes he even invites the offending party to the meal to reconcile their relationship. He then gives them his mobile phone number and encourages them to call him whenever they need someone to talk to.

As you can imagine, Chen Si is a busy man. He does all of this in addition to his day job where he works as a logistician. He is not professionally trained as a counselor but is very interested in psychology and has a thorough understanding of people and how to read them. He is clear and committed to his cause and believes he possesses the ability to help these people.

The reason I’m persistently committed to rescuing people on this bridge is to wake up people’s sense of responsibility and love, to care for one another.  Chen Si

Realizing that sometimes the people he helps need more continuous care he has created the Soul Center which is a safe place for people to stay while they work through their problems.

It is admirable but also concerning that all of this work on the bridge, at the center, and even the financing is done by Chen Si himself. Which raises the question of how much support can realistically be given. He has a wife, a daughter, relatives back in his hometown, a day job, etc. What would happen to all this if he were to stop, which his family has pressured him to do in the past as the commitment is just so great.

Enduring Despair

Chen Si’s work is not without cost. Because he feels so burdened for these hurting people, especially for those who would commit suicide on weekdays while he’s at his day job, he resorts to chain smoking, drinking, and writing on his blog to work through his depression. This is the only way he can cope. He is trying to save the world using his own way and his own strength, and it is proving to be too much for him.

As I watched the film I couldn’t help but think about Chen Si’s efforts from the worldview of the gospel. Here is a man who is killing himself in order to sustain the burden of saving other people from killing themselves. He is frustrated by his own human limitations to save people not just from one attempt, but from future troubles. He has put the responsibility on himself and the weight of that which he was never meant to bear, is crushing him. Every person that commits suicide while he’s not on watch, he sees as someone that he could not save.

At the end, his grandmother passes away and he feels he let her down. All the times he went out to work and save people he wasn’t around to take care of her. He can’t win. Either way he is overcome by the guilt of letting someone down because he has taken it all upon himself to be the savior.

Humanity was never meant to save itself. That’s why we need the gospel. It had to be something outside of humanity that would be enough to give us a permanent solution to an eternal problem.

I am not belittling Chen Si’s efforts. I do not diminish all the sacrifice and heart that it has taken to do what he has done. But what he himself has also realized the hard way is that when he rescues people that doesn’t solve their problems. What it does do, is give them a second chance at life.

All the meals, all the hours on the phone giving counsel, all the problems that are shared, ultimately it is simple. People just want to be heard, seen, and understood. My hope, as I watched this film, is that with those second chances, those people would find Jesus. And only Jesus can truly hear, see, and understand us in a way that satisfies our soul.

For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost. Luke 19:10

Image credit: Angel of Nanjing trailer.  
Hannah Lau

Hannah Lau

Hannah Lau is a marketing consultant for ChinaSource, managing external communication and marketing processes including social media. Originally from Canada, Hannah served for a time in China where she began her career in advertising. A few years ago she left the corporate sector and took her skills to the non-profit sector, …View Full Bio

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