‘Letter from Masanjia’ sends message about Chinese oppression

Graham Shapley

Courtesy of ACT Film Festival.

The ACT Human Rights Film Festival presents many viewpoints that are not typically heard. It also shines a light on victims of human rights abuses. It’s rare, however, that the subjects of these documentaries are actually the ones filming them.

This is part of what makes “Letter from Masanjia” interesting. The director of the film, Leon Lee, was unable to travel to China due to his previous status as a human rights advocate. As a result, he decided to reach out to the actual writer of the titular letter, Sun Yi.


Yi was imprisoned at the Masanjia labor camp for 2 1/2 years during which he was pressed into labor creating cheap Halloween decorations. In that time, he smuggled approximately 20 written letters into the decorations. Julie Keith, a mother in Oregon, found one of the letters, which later sparked media outrage.

Yi had an interest in sharing his story, so he collaborated with Lee to explain what happened and what Chinese imprisonment is like. Yi was a follower of Falun Gong, a religious and spiritual movement in China that the Communist Party outlawed for being too widespread and a potential threat to their power.

Yi was imprisoned in the Masanjia labor camp, infamous for its harsh reeducation tactics. Because filming inside the camp is impossible, this portion of the story is expressed through animation, showing the harsh treatment and outright torture that Yi and his fellow prisoners underwent.

In order to explain his story, Yi decided to film it himself and send his raw footage to Lee in heavily encrypted hard drives through the mail.

About halfway through the movie, Yi’s retelling of his story is complete, and he seems to be on his way to a happy ending. He reconnects with his wife and plans on leaving China as soon as he can, but the Chinese government continues to harass him. This is where the movie’s filming process becomes part of the documentary itself. If it’s discovered that he’s essentially writing an exposé, he’d be endangering both himself and his family.

“In the end, justice will prevail over evil.” – Sun Yi

“Letter to Masanjia” becomes something truly special in its second half. It’s tense, and there’s no way of knowing where the story is going to go, because it is being written as it is being filmed. The continuing torment from the Chinese government is even more alarming than the film’s earlier  depiction of Yi’s forced labor. It shows that although he is not imprisoned, Yi will never be free under Chinese scrutiny.

The government’s actions are horrifying and truly have to be heard to be believed. Interviews with former guards who used to torture Yi are in the film. Yi’s wife, Fu Ning, shares the torment she also endured as a result of his imprisonment.

Unfortunately, there is no hard conclusion to the film, but it does end on a message of hope from Yi.

“In the end, justice will prevail over evil,” Yi said.

Collegian reporter Graham Shapley can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com and on Twitter @shapleygraham.