City of Life and Death 南京！南京！
By James Topley, Special to The China Post
October 30, 2009, 9:17 am TWN
Director Lu Chuan ("The Missing Gun," "Kekexili") is not a mouthpiece for the Chinese Communist Party, nor is he a troublemaker. Rather, his film “City of Life and Death,” or “Nanking! Nanking!” in Chinese, paints a balanced portrait of the tragic events and human trials experienced during the brutal Japanese occupation of the eastern Chinese city in the 1930s.
Yet his film remains profoundly disturbing as he presents an extremely realistic account of the six-week massacre, which remains a contentious political issue for historians and Japanese nationalists alike; tender-hearted viewers beware!
The Rape of Nanking was one of the most heinous war crimes of the 20th century, occurring during the last weeks of 1937 and ending early the following year.
Upon entering China, the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) reportedly committed merciless acts of cruelty, looting, raping, executing and massacring both prisoners of war and the civilian population.
Lu trains an unblinking eye on the horrors of the city under siege, where citizens were suppressed like slaves, tormented unbearably and forced to endure or be executed. Women and children were not overlooked.
Dealing with such a sensitive subject, a film portraying the destruction, domination and rape of Nanking is profoundly difficult to watch.
Although some war films have blatant propaganda interlaced within their scripts, “City of Life and Death” is far from an audacious call to arms. In fact, it is the very essence of fear that makes this conflict so deplorable to watch.
Unlike war classics, such as “Schindler's List,” “The Pianist,” or even “Apocalypse Now,” “City of Life and Death” does not focus purely on an individual or hero's story. Instead, it spans a far larger cast, with many of those portrayed in the film based on real people from both sides of the conflict as well as bystanders.
One real-life witness, Nazi businessman John Rabe, (who helped establish a “safety zone” in the heart of the city and saved countless refugees in the process), was featured prominently in the film despite his neutrality.
What's more, unlike prior productions that dealt with the Nanking Massacre such as the German production of “John Rabe,” this is a genuine ensemble piece where no single character overpowers another. Each individual contributes a vital human element to the story.
This kind of film is never without controversy. It examines a period in history that Japan has never fully acknowledged, yet here, the occupying forces are neither demonized nor justified.
Instead, it realistically depicts the human condition of fear, an emotion vividly captured in the first moments of the movie. This sets the tone of the entire film, creating a world where fear drives us to do inhumane, barbaric acts. While the acting is first-class, the mood and pace of the film combined with close-up cinematography are deliberately painful to endure.