History Buried Under Rubble

Film review of Lu Chuan’s “City of Life and Death” (China, 2009)

The words “war cinema” do not bode well with me. Bloodshed in most war films, in my opinion, encompasses an inaccurate portrayal of heroism and the glorified grandeur of violence in the service of one’s country. Rarely am I taken to empathize with a soldier who perpetrates violent crimes—even in the landscape of war, where such empathy is not only condoned but also expected. Needless to say, I am not easily enthralled with, nor do I readily respect, war films.

This said, “The City of Life and Death” is a masterpiece in war cinema. In a harrowing and unflinching manner, it chronicles the Rape of Nanking with startling aesthetic magnificence and a keen eye toward moral indiscretion and the vacillation of the ethical human condition. In this film, normal people violently torture, rape, and execute other normal people. This occurs often horrifyingly casually, sometimes with passionate malevolence, and rarely with a person’s ability to recognize and contemplate the horrors they are inflicting upon their own kind.

The film operates on a factual basis. It begins with the Japanese Imperial Army invasion of Nanking. The Japanese are ruthless, destroying the city in its entirety, pillaging everything in their paths. The first fifteen minutes of the film are dizzying in their realistically chaotic and disorienting depiction of the front lines of warfare. Grenades are thrown, fires are ignited, soldiers engage in man-to-man combat with swords and guns alike. When the Japanese decide they have succeeded in overtaking the then-capital of China, they begin their mass murder scheme. With no apparent discretion or order, the people of Nanking—women and children included—are drowned, burned alive, buried alive, shot execution-style, and beaten to death. Bodies lay strewn all over the conquered city, some tied to posts, some hanging from street lamps, and others in the street left to be trampled upon by the Japanese soldiers. Most of the Chinese civilians and soldiers are left for dead, though those that do survive are given the promise of a safe zone in a refugee camp run by a German Nazi, Mr. Rabe, his assistant, Mr. Tang, and an American schoolteacher, Ms. Vautrin (all based on real people whose diaries and letters were the basis of their film characterizations). The safe zone, however, is breached when the Japanese soldiers become bored and consistently break into the camp to rape women and young girls. [To encourage viewing of this film, the rest of the synopsis has been omitted.]

Where graphic violence is concerned, we are not spared. Lu Chuan presents us with a heartbreakingly honest portrayal of the events that transpired in Nanking, weaving human sentiment into a story seemingly devoid of humanity through the viewpoints of both perpetrators and victims. Although the imagery of the atrocious violence is lacerating to the core, Chuan consistently reminds us that it is art we are experiencing; he hopes that it is through this art form that we will absorb and grapple with the indelible events of recent history. Undoubtedly he succeeds: shot in austere black and white with gritty lighting schemes, the artistry here is delectable. Acute attention to framing and composition is evident, remarkably even throughout the most chaotic scenes of warfare.

Chuan circumvents a common misstep in war cinema by allowing us to become privy to the psychological states of nearly all of the main characters rather than leaving us to infer the condition of their inner landscape. In this way, we are able to assume a holistic perspective on the human elements of war. All of the characters undergo notable shifts throughout the film, rendering them three-dimensional people rather than puppets in a war story. War heroism is also realistically portrayed here; the heroes are those who bring palpable empathy and human investment into the front lines, combatting the forces of dehumanization often to a tragic end.

With City of Life and Death, Chuan has embarked on a grandiose and assiduous attempt to pay homage to a transgression in history. Just as the Rape of Nanking should not be forgotten, Chuan’s commendable efforts in this film should not be overlooked.


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Let Feminism Rain

Film review of Agnès Jaoui’s “Let it Rain” (France, 2008)

What’s interesting about this film—as well as this film review, for that matter—is that you won’t be reading it if you detest the word “feminist.” That is, if you abhor women with strong spines or have misconceptions about what feminism entails. If you identify with the aforementioned, just as you wouldn’t see a film starring Simone de Beauvoir, you wouldn’t see this one. Which is a shame, really, because all of the characters in “Let it Rain” think like you do—caveman-style, if you will—save for one. This notion is the real basis for the film: Most people, even the so-called liberal upper class, still either don’t understand or don’t advocate for what it means to be a feminist.

Agathe Villanova, a successful French author and aspiring politician, holds down the fort as the only self-identified feminist in the film. When approached by an unlikely pair of documentarians—Michel, a quirky, washed-up television reporter, and his protégé Karim, a young filmmaker with dreams he is unsure of how to realize—Agathe agrees to take part in a documentary they are filming about successful women. Right off the bat she is incredulous, noting (albeit wisely) that any documentary with such a demeaning title would inevitably manifest as a pitiful minority film. Regardless, she agrees, and immediately opinions about her are formed. Karim, taking the position of the typical man of today, immediately has a hard time describing Villanova, an atypically spoken-minded strong woman, as “nice;” he skirts around the words such as “overbearing” and “harsh” (though, to be noted, she is no more harsh than the average American male) until finally deciding upon “domineering” as the least offensive word to use with regard to her feminist nature. Michel, on the other hand, is less off-put by Villanova’s character than perplexed; he doesn’t understand why some women are more decision-oriented and durable than others. “So, should men bear children now?” Michel asks Agathe during an interview for the doc. This poses two interesting angles to the contemporary feminist debate: the one who is contemptuous and the one who just doesn’t get it.

For Villanova, the male gaze views a woman with power as a scary breed of beast. Agathe asks to be an equal but is met with resentment and is branded in her political career as a woman rather than a politician (“She shouldn’t be so sensitive if she wants to go into politics,” Michel pronounces after Agathe becomes offended by derogatory insinuations about her gender). She is met with opposition as well from the world of traditional women, most notably when her childhood housekeeper tells Agathe the only way for a woman to be happy is to be validated by a man. This is perplexing for Agathe, particularly because she struggles with a nonconformist relationship with her own lover in which she makes it clear, despite his wishes, that she will not marry him nor bear his children. For her, this is equality: the ability to lead a life marked by independence and full potential for personal growth. Yet however outwardly steadfast she appears in this way of life, inwardly she finds herself longing for security and stability.

Arguably the most fascinating and nuanced relationship in the film occurs between Agathe and her sister, Florence, who is married with children. “You’re so different from your sister,” Michel remarks to Agathe, and she nods in concurrence. “Yes, she was always the fragile one,” sighs Agathe. “How convenient to be fragile.” Florence, meanwhile, takes many opportunities amid bouts of emotional outburst to muse about how “liberated” she feels, while Agathe maintains the requisite politician front and painfully harbors her sentiments within carefully constructed confines. Which tactic, we are asked to consider, is really more convenient? Or, rather, which tactic is more convenient for a woman?

Alas, the modern woman is all too familiar with the word “compromise.” We are constantly compromising in relationships, most of us dealing with unbalanced power structures and double standards. We’re also compromising in the workplace, navigating expectations of submissiveness. The most heated compromise, however, lies in the realm of childbearing. The world as it is tells us we can’t have it all. Agathe is plagued by this, though she allays her uncertainty by settling under a veneer of assuredness. Intermittently, however, we see this semblance quiver with doubt and we wonder if Agathe really does know what she wants.

Director Agnès Jaoui plucks a concerto of strings to the tune of a cacophonous feminism exploration. In one of my favorite scenes, the trifecta takes a hike through the mountains of Southern France in search of an idyllic shot for one of the documentary interviews. The interview, however, is rudely interrupted by bleating sheep and an equipmental mishap, thus cannot be conducted. Embittered and late for a public appearance, Agathe leads the two disgruntled men back down the mountain. Agathe walks in front, exuding palpable power, while the two men follow behind her, escorted by the pack of sheep. Here, Jaoui asserts her overarching sentiment, highlighting a moment when two self-proclaimed masculine men follow literally like sheep behind the most well-adjusted intellectual force among them: a woman.

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