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.