City of Life and Death (2009)

Director: Lu Chuan

Plot: A dramatization of the rape of Nanking in 1937.

Genre: Drama/History/War
Awards: -
Runtime: 132min
Rating: M18 for disturbing images, war violence, and sexuality.

Lu Chuan’s WWII epic City Of Life And Death – also known as Nanking! Nanking! – is the second film to hit our shores in recent years with regards to the Nanking Massacre of the late 1930s. The first was a documentary directed by Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman entitled Nanking (2007). If I am forced to compare between the two, Lu’s film would come out tops. But that is not to say the documentary is inferior. In fact, it is more impactful though much less entertaining.

City Of Life And Death echoes influences from two of Steven Spielberg’s masterpieces – Schindler’s List (1993) and Saving Private Ryan (1998). Filmed in black-and-white and capturing in horrifying detail the cruelty and violence dished out by the Japanese soldiers toward Chinese civilians, Lu’s film is every bit as stark and dehumanizing as Spielberg’s Holocaust drama. Moreover, there is an ‘Oskar Schindler-like’ character in City Of Life And Death as portrayed by Mr. Rabe, a charitable and compassionate German who through the establishment of a safe zone and with the help of several committed humanitarian workers, struggles to shield thousands of Chinese refugees from Japanese atrocities.

While Lu’s film has its moments of human drama depicting especially the helplessness of women and children under the brutality of the Japanese, it is primarily a war spectacle. It begins with a prolonged series of skillfully-directed action set-pieces which extend past the half-hour mark. I must commend the effort put into creating the war-torn urban environment (a similar setting to the climax in Saving Private Ryan). The realism of the sets, the excellent production design, and the impressive meshing of visuals and sound come very close to what Spielberg had envisioned in his war epic.

City Of Life And Death continues to impress after the battle scenes. Its docu-realism approach intensifies the hysteria of the situation; scenes shot for ‘impact’, such as the throwing of a child out of a window to her death, or the forced raping of Chinese women sacrificed for sexual pleasure, are examples of immoral acts committed by the invaders. That being said, some of the more gruesome things we have read in history books are left out in the film because it would have been too ghastly (and ethically unsound) to show on the big screen.

Lu’s film is also unusual in the sense that it depicts, for most parts of the film, through the perspective of Kadokawa, a Japanese soldier who slowly becomes disillusioned with the torture and killing of civilians. He sympathizes with them (but he takes no action out of fear for the consequences). Nevertheless, he gains our sympathy and respect because it is always very frustrating to be in a moral dilemma and have absolutely no way to do anything about it. This is also where the film earns its controversy – to account for one of the blackest days in modern China’s history through the sympathetic eye of the oppressor is, without doubt, something that would irk even the most open and forgiving of people.

There is a sequence late in the film which shows a huge celebration by the triumphant Japanese after the conquer of Nanking which I feel is an unnecessary addition. It deflects the sorrow and pain of the Chinese away and emphasizes almost in exaggeration, the ‘outstanding accomplishments’ of the oppressor. Thankfully, the film redeems itself with a poignant ending which provide excellent closure to what is quite a fine effort by Lu.



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