City of Life and Death *** ½
Directed by: Chuan Lu.
Written by: Chuan Lu.
Starring: Ye Liu (Lu Jianxiong), Yuanyuan Gao (Miss Jiang), Hideo Nakaizumi (Kadokawa), Wei Fan (Mr. Tang), Yiyan Jiang (Xiao Jiang), Ryu Kohata (Ida), Bin Liu (Xiaodouzi), John Paisley(John Rabe), Beverly Peckous (Minnie Vautrin), Lan Qin (Mrs. Tang).
When you’re a Chinese filmmaker making a film about the Japanese Nanking massacre of 1937, and you manage to piss off both the Japanese and the Chinese, you’ve most likely made a good film. And Chuan Lu’s City of Life and Death is a good film – a very good one. One that is difficult to watch, but impossible to turn away from. The unspeakably horrible actions on the screen are contrasted against the beautiful black and white photography. There is no uplift here – no sentimentality, no real hope. It recounts the events, and shows you images you will never forget.
The movie offers little back story – because none is really needed. It basically opens with the Japanese breaching the walls of Nanking, and then cuts back and forth between the desperate Chinese trying to escape the city, and the Japanese soldiers trying to pen them in. This part of the movie is hectic and chaotic, but remarkably, Lu Chuan manages to make it both epic and intimate. Epic because of all the chaos, all the bloodshed, all the murder on a huge scale going on. Intimate, because he often pauses on the participants faces. A few emerge as memorable – especially Lu (Ye Liu), a Chinese soldier we follow from the beginning of the massacre until he, along with thousands of others, is trapped and massacred.
But this is one the first part of the film. The majority takes place in the refugee camp after the initial massacre, where a few kind hearted souls try their best to take care of and protect the surviving residents of Nanking. But the Japanese continually raid the camps – murdering some, and raping many of the women. Finally, the Japanese offer the refugees a deal – if they give them 100 women, who they assure them will be returned alive in 3 weeks – then they will leave the rest of them alone. The mass rapes that follow are as difficult to watch as all the bloodshed that continues throughout the film.
I mentioned off the top that both Japanese and Chinese people were upset with this film, but for different reasons. The Japanese do not like any mention of the Nanking Massacre at all – it does make them look bad, and this film, that dramatizes it with horrifying detail, is worse than normal. Many Chinese people will were offended because they felt Lu Chuan whitewashed German Nazi John Rabe – who stayed and tried to help the refugees, before being ordered home by his superiors, because they did not want him jeopardizing their relationship with an alley. Even worse, according to them, was the presentation of Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi), a sympathetic Japanese soldier.
But I think Kadokawa is key to the entire film. Yes, he is horrified by what he witnesses his countrymen doing, and he does not take part in the worst of it. When it is his “turn” with one of the 100 women, he’s even nice to her. But when his time is up, he just sits and watches another soldier rape this poor woman once again. That pretty much describes Kadokawa – horrified and disgusted, but never moved to action. Kadokawa is key to the film because he humanizes the Japanese – which makes what they do all the more difficult to watch. Every time there is a massacre, some people call it inhuman and the perpetrators monsters, but that let’s them off the hook too easy. The cruelty on display in this film is human cruelty.
City of Life and Death is a difficult film to watch. Many won’t want to watch it at all. Unlike a film like Schindler’s List, it offers no hope. No film can truly, accurately capture a massacre on this scale – but City of Life and Death comes as close as any film is likely to.