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Review: 'Letter from Masanjia' shares heartbreaking story of human rights abuses in China

Review: 'Letter from Masanjia' shares heartbreaking story of human rights abuses in China
Julie Keith, left, with Sun Yi in the documentary "Letter From Masanjia."

What begins as an unusual “message in a bottle” story builds to a powerful tale of human suffering, compassion and perseverance in “Letter From Masanjia,” a documentary directed by Leon Lee and co-writer Caylan Ford.

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In 2012, Julie Keith of Damascus, Ore., opened a package of Halloween decorations she had purchased two years earlier at Kmart. Inside, she found a letter written by Sun Yi, a prisoner at the Masanjia Labor Camp in the northeast province of Liaoning, where the decorations were manufactured through forced labor. Writing in Chinese and English, Sun urged the finder to contact human rights organizations and alert the world to the abuses and torture occuring at Masanjia.

Keith attempted to do so, and finally got worldwide attention when a story in the Oregonian newspaper went viral. A Chinese magazine published a quickly squashed exposé, but the government closed Masanjia and other camps in 2013. That, however, was only the beginning of a gripping saga told primarily by Sun, who was released about the time Keith purchased the decorations.

Working with filmmaker Lee, who lives in Canada, Sun chronicles his story of persecution by the Chinese government for his involvement with the outlawed spiritual group Falun Gong. In interviews, Sun details an excruciating 2 1/2 years he says he spent at Masanjia, the aftermath and the emotional and physical tolls it took on him and his wife of 20 years, Fu Ning.

A heartbreaking nightmare for the couple, a life-changing event for Keith, yet together their stories make Lee’s amazing film deserving of a broad audience. “Letter From Masanjia” is a bracing reminder of our sometimes blindered approach to globalization and the effects of simple actions.

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‘Letter From Masanjia’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Playing: Starts Friday, Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena

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