City of Life and Death
Written and Directed By: Lu Chuan
Starring: Liu Ye, Gao Yuanyuan, Hideo Nakaizumi, Fan Wei, and John Paisley
Director of Photography: Cao Yu, Editor: Teng Yun, Production Designers: Hao Yi and Lin Chaoxiang, Music: Liu Tong
Rated: Unrated, but brutal and necessary violence throughout
Director Lu Chuan fills his historical epic City of Life and Death with faces. Faces stare right at the camera. Confused faces. Horrified faces. Faces that are unforgettable. Some by themselves; others in a sea of hundreds. The effect reminds the viewer in this difficult and powerful film of a simple premise: these are people.
And such a reminder is necessary in this retelling of the destruction of Nanking during the early stages of the Second World War The subject has become a popular one for numerous Chinese filmmakers (most of which have never made it past its own borders) but Mr. Lu approaches the subject in a controversial way. Instead of making the film a Chinese propaganda tale, the filmmaker shows some humanity in the Japanese soldiers involved in the massacre, adding complexity that has riled many Chinese natives, but also provided a much more unique approach than his counterparts. For some Chinese critics, this is the equivalent of humanizing Nazis in a Holocaust film, something of course that is now an almost routine trope for American and European filmmakers. And the effect, along with Mr. Lu’s brutal visual style and harrowing drama, creates a brutal piece of art that challenges the idea of humanity.
For those unfamiliar with the so-called “Rape of Nanking,” Mr. Lu provides brief context before the Japanese soldiers come roaring into the city. Shot in crisp black and white, the early battle scenes, shot in handheld, are both epic and personal, recalling the intense battle sequences of Saving Private Ryan. And yet the real drama of the film only begins after this prologue, as the Japanese imprison and murder thousands of Nanking citizens (estimates of how many died are almost impossible, but it may have been in the hundreds of thousands by some accounts). Many of them are simply shot immediately, and Mr. Lu edits between scenes of both soldiers and citizens being gunned down over and over. It’s almost impossible to watch and comes close to bordering on parody, but Mr. Lu’s dedication is critical without being philistine.
Eventually, certain characters emerge out of the fog of death that plagues the city. Mr. Tang (Chinese comic actor Fan Wei) uses his protection given by a white German doctor, but must question whether his beliefs or his family must come first. Miss Jiang (Gao Yuanyuan) attempts to protect the thousands of girls from rape by the Japanese soldiers by making them unattractive and providing refuge. Perhaps most interesting though, and the reason the film has become a sparkplug of controversy, is the Japanese soldier Kadokawa, played by Hideo Nakaizumi. Kadokawa starts the war has an innocent young soldier, confused and horrified by his own actions. When he visits a prostitute, he attempts to give her gifts and chat with her. By the end though, Mr. Nakaizumi shows how much war can change a person, and a final act he performs late in the film is horrifying, but oddly humanizing. Despite this character though, the film is certainly much more aligned in sympathies with the Chinese, and the controversy in the native country seems imprudent.
This becomes the central conceit of City of Life and Death: how to preserve one’s humanity in a time of chaos. Sequence after sequence, Mr. Lu struggles with his country’s past. Big budget Chinese filmmaking has been considered somewhat of a joke by international audiences, but Mr. Lu provides both a grandiose epic of grand and brutal proportions with a subtlety about tragedy not even seen by the country’s fringe filmmakers. City of Life and Death is not an easy film by any means, nor does it really place enough context to be considered necessary viewing by history buffs. But Mr. Lu is a filmmaker who knows how to work on such a large scale and without compromising his narratives. And such boldness makes this a unique work from the Far East.