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City of Life and Death 南京!南京!

Friday, October 30, 2009
By James Topley, Special to The China Post


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.

The opening scenes could be confusing to anyone not aware of the period; yet even when the film finds its rhythm, there is a feeling of familiarity. An early battle sequence is terrifically directed, and when the action winds down the film transitions brilliantly, terrifyingly, into the aftermath, the so-called Safety Zone. A safety zone is commonly used within conflict-ridden films such as “Hotel Rwanda,” but here, the Japanese never really entertain such niceties. Outside the zone was hell; by all accounts, inside was not much better.

The depiction of these horrendous few weeks contains some of the most harrowing images ever committed to film. While rarely explicit, the film hammers home from this point onwards. The massacre of thousands of powerless Chinese, obliterated on an enormous scale, is genuinely shocking for all their lack of resistance. Even the more character-driven, calmer events can still reinforce the creeping realization that no one is safe; a later sequence with women volunteering themselves as “comfort girls” for the Japanese soldiers, or the aftermath of Rabe departing from the city in the finale, are so excruciating as to border on unwatchable.

The film falls noticeably short of perfection. The monochrome cinematography is a little too lackluster and could have benefited from a more contrasting color palette with clearer blacks and fewer grays. The acting reaches some particularly high levels, especially from Liu Ye as the resistance leader. Nonetheless, Hideo Nakaizumi as Takada, the Japanese lead, is somewhat outclassed; his performance was simply not up to the task.

Nonetheless, "City of Life and Death" is an eye-opener, comfortably proving the mainland Chinese film industry is more than able to produce absolutely wondrous cinema, while still able to keep the Communist regime happy. Ultimately, the most interesting aspect of the film may not be the movie itself, but the social and political implications of its creation and distribution.

Still, whilst the movie is unpleasant enough in places to make me want to lose my lunch into my popcorn, it is decent, engaging and significant. It might not be easy to watch, but it's definitely worth the effort. The round of applause the film received from the audience at the closing credits was certainly well-deserved.

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