Many of us have some knowledge of the Sino-Japanese war; and many are the films that have portrayed what happened during that period. “CITY OF LIFE AND DEATH” (2009) is director Lu Chuan’s attempt in portraying the massacre in Nanking (rape of Nanking), a period that occurred between 1937 and 1938 when the Imperial Japanese army have occupied China’s capital committing atrocities against defenseless Chinese P.O.W.s such as murder, mutilation, looting and rape. The incident is truly one of the most emotional issues between China and Japan that it would be easy to assume that a Chinese-made film that portrayed the events would have strong anti-Japanese sentiments.
However, Lu Chuan does something quite surprising and impressive; as the director, he has managed to bring forth a certain balance by offering different viewpoints in this harrowing event during the Sino-Japanese war. His work is well-balanced and quite frankly, “City of Life and Death” has a strong sentiment of humanity in its screenplay with the way it lets the film’s themes and characters speak for themselves. “City of Life and Death” comes real close to the harrowing portrayals depicted in “Schindler’s List”.
December 1937, when the Imperial Japanese army has conquered the capital of Nanking while pockets of resistance fighters made of Chinese soldiers (some under the age of 15) are trying to fight back. A band lead by a Chinese soldier (Liu Ye) confronts a Japanese battalion with a young soldier Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi) caught in the ensuing melee. The outcome of the battle was never in doubt, given that the Chinese is undermanned and undersupplied. The Chinese soldiers are overpowered, captured and executed in the most inhumane ways. After the executions, a safety zone is established by a Nazi businessman named Rabe ( played by John Paisley, called “China‘s Oscar Schindler“) by safeguarding as many Chinese citizens as he can. However, he isn‘t a successful savior as Schindler, as Rabe was being pushed around by the Japanese when their needs require it. What follows are events so harrowing that almost made me turn away…
Shot in black and white, director Lu Chuan presents an atmosphere that can make the viewer wonder if the sequences are news reels or they are just being ‘sensationalized’. I applaud the black and white approach as it gives the movie a sense of authenticity as it goes on to depict each harrowing event after the next, from the battle in the opening act, to the massacre of Chinese soldiers by burning them alive, mutilating their bodies and burying them alive in mass graves, shooting them with machine guns and finally to the actual occupation of Nanking. The battle sequences are pretty intense and realistic; I was real impressed with the manner it took the viewer in the heat of combat. You could really feel that both sides are actually in real danger. War is hell, and while the horrors of war are indeed in full exposition during the battles, the horrors are just beginning for those who lost.
After the execution of the Chinese soldiers and refugee camps were established, this is where the film lets the characters take over the film’s script. The direction tosses about loads of sympathy around to enhance the cinematic experience. You see the Japanese and the Chinese as both the victims, heroes and the perpetrators; as Mr. Tang (Fan Wei) is a Chinese man who would sacrifice anything, his soul, his countrymen and women to save his family, we see a stubborn, beautiful woman (Jiang Yiyan) filled with pride who is shattered when she is raped by the Japanese. Then she becomes a hero as she sacrifices herself to become a ‘comfort woman’ for the Japanese in exchange for food, warmth and shelter for the other Chinese people. An officer (Kohata Ryu) relishes the atrocities they commit but develops a liking for several Chinese people. Kadokawa is a soldier who becomes smitten by a Japanese comfort woman, while he does his “soldiering”, he never sexually abuses a woman. Lu Chuan’s direction puts the characters in situations that effectively depicts the evils of human behavior; but no matter from which angle you look at things, the film maintains its humanity while painting very strong anti-war sentiments.
The direction has several harrowing and unnerving sequences that bring the characters and situations to their requital. The fate of the Chinese soldiers are truly wrenching and unnerving as well as the fates of the “comfort women”; whether they be Korean, Japanese and Chinese, the women are all victims of their fate, but they did have their moments of heroism despite their sad fates. The film has several scenes of graphic nudity and rape that were very difficult to watch. There were also a few sequences when Ms. Jiang (Jiang Shuyun) was trying to save as many surviving Chinese soldiers as she could and Lu as he marched to his final execution. Both scenes depict the act of nobility and final defiance. These scenes are certain key moments in the film that truly depicted courage, defiance and heroism.
I guess if the movie had a flaw, it would be that the film was a little too balanced that it felt quite constructed. It trades in plot complexities to maintain a balance. Kadokawa becomes a sympathetic character as the direction uses him as a situational template; a soldier caught in the middle of the extreme situation given little choice but to do nothing. This story arc is relevant and yet it is only proven as something that is needed for the theme and not for the characters’ development. Some scenes should’ve have been more disturbing than Lu Chuan portrays them; kids being buried alive and mutilated weren’t totally brought into bear. While Lu Chuan went the distance, he didn’t seal the deal and leaves some room for another director to really define the events in “Nanking”.
True, “City of Life and Death” may not be perfect but it is pretty close in becoming the definitive film based on the harrowing events during the rape of Nanking. The film has awesome cinematography and style, the acting is stellar and the plot is well-developed. The direction knew what it was aiming for and the themes were effective enough in portraying the harrowing effects of war. Lu Chuan’s “City of Life and Death” was heavily criticized for portraying the Japanese as not being “evil enough” while some has said that he made the Japanese too ruthless and evil. Some people has even said that China is just giving itself the image of a victim given its own lack of respect for human rights. Both countries; China and Japan have both acknowledged their past mistakes and trespasses. People will undoubtedly use this film as a launching pad for criticizing the two countries. But let’s just say that Lu Chuan’s film has to be seen to be believed. This film should be embraced as a one of great achievements in Cinema.
CITY OF LIFE AND DEATH is a masterpiece - of film making, of finding the midline of response to war from both sides, of cautiously but successfully blending intimate stories with the gory atrocities of war, and of recreating a period of history we too soon forget unless prodded by works such as this. Lu Chuan both wrote and directed this vision of the 1937 decimation of Nanking, the capital of China, by the Japanese that lasted in action for only six weeks but that has been a permanent festering … more
City of Life and Death takes place in 1937, during the height of theSecond Sino-Japanese War. The Imperial Japanese Army has just captured the then-capital of the Republic of China, Nanjing. What followed was known as the Nanking Massacre, a period of several weeks wherein massive numbers of Chinese prisoners of war and civilians were killed.
The film tells the story of several figures, both historical and fictional, including a Chinese soldier, a schoolteacher, a Japanese soldier, a foreign missionary, and John Rabe, a Nazi businessman who would ultimately save thousands of Chinese civilians.