City of Life and Death

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Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
City of Life and Death
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

Shortly after the beginning of the Second-Sino-Japanese War in 1937, Japanese troops captured the capital of the Chinese republic – Nanking. The atrocities that fell upon the survivors came to be known as the Rape of Nanking and writer-director Lu Chuan tells the story of the “City of Life and Death.”

I am fascinated by the historical period spanning the 1930s and 40s and am well acquainted with the horrors that befell Nanking following its occupation by the Japanese. However, the perspective of that terrible, many weeks long time of rape, slaughter and pillage has always been by the 300000 Chinese victims, not the conquerors. Lu Chaun turns this on its head.

Masao Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi) is a sergeant in the occupying Japanese army and believes that his is an honorable life as a soldier. But, when his army begins its horrifying string of violent rapes of tens of thousands of Chinese woman and mass executions of hundreds of thousands, he begins to doubt his leaders. Kadokawa is a compassionate man and questions, in his head, the honor of such atrocities. This viewpoint raised a hue and cry in China and the writer-director was criticized, in some circles, for being sympathetic to the Japanese soldier, Kadokawa.

“City of Life and Death” does not show the Japanese invaders in a good light. Far from it. Except for Kadokawa, the occupiers are shown as ruthless, brutal and blood thirsty butchers where their Chinese “comfort women” must suffer being raped, repeatedly, by Japanese soldiers, with many raped to death. This vicious atrocity, is compounded by, first, the detention and execution of thousands of captured Chinese troops, then, the slaughter of civilians trapped in Nanking. Initially, some Chinese found refuge in the German legation run by Dr. John Rabe (John Paisley) but, as they say, to the victor go the spoils and that safe haven, too, vanishes.

Lu Chuan creates a masterpiece, not just in story telling, but, with an exceptional crew, a brilliant look into one of the most harrowing and deadly invasions in modern history. If this is not one of the greatest horrors of all time, it certainly is for the 20th Century, a century that gave the term atrocities even greater horrific meaning. I expected “City of Life and Death” to be a good, historically accurate telling of one of the great tragedies. Instead, I got to see one of the great, epic films that exceeded all my expectations.

Besides the brilliant writing and directing, the behind camera efforts are spectacularly accomplished. The black-and-white cinematography, by Yu Cao, is fast and fluid, moving from near-microscopic close up of the many characters to majestically shot battle scenes with a cast of thousands and it works beautifully, Production design, by Yi Hao, is stunning in its period accuracy and depiction of a city under the thumb of a ruthless invader. The attention to detail – the equipment, weapons, uniforms and tanks used by the Japanese – is spot-on accurate. This is no mean feat 64 years after the Nanking holocaust. The rest of the techs are above par, including outstanding original music (Tong Liu) and dynamic editing (Yun Ten).

Acting is terrific on all levels with riveting performances by all of the principal (and there are many) characters. Combine this talent with a multi-threaded true story that has no loose or ragged ends and we get a film that is one of the best of the new millennium. The almost documentary look makes you feel the despair, the tragedy and the horror as the film brings the viewer into this brief moment in history. And, it is easily one of the top 10 war movies I have ever seen – and I have seen a lot.  I give it an A.

In 1937, after Shanghai had fallen, the Japanese Army quickly took the Republic of China's capital Nanjing.  In this period of history, most commonly referred to as the 'Rape of Nanking,' 300,000 soldiers and civilians lost their lives. Countless others were raped and wounded in a "City of Life and Death."

Diaries and survivors' accounts provided writer/director Lu Chuan ("The Missing Gun") with a different perspective than the traditional Chinese one, that the Japanese are somehow different, their makeup more brutal.  His portrayal of Japanese soldier Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi) as a man horrified by what is being done to the Chinese and haunted by a beautiful young comfort woman, Yuriko (Yuko Miyamoto), actually brought Chuan death threats.  But it is this humanity, standing beside horrific crimes against same, which makes "City of Life and Death" one of the greatest war films.  Nothing is black and white.  There are Chinese heroes, martyrs and decent family men who betray their own to save family.  There are outsiders, like the famous Nazi John Rabe (John Paisley), who work within the Safety Zone to save as many as they can (his story was most recently told in the 2007 documentary "Nanking").

The 'Rape of Nanking' is dramatized by Chuan from three points of view.  We meet a handsome Chinese soldier, Lu Jianxiong (Ye Liu, "Curse of the Golden Flower"), trying to hold the North Gate along with his companion Shunzi (Yisui Zhao) and the twelve year old Xiaodouzi (Bin Liu), but it is an impossible feat.  On the other side is Kadokawa, under the command of Ida (Ryu Kohata), a steely man seemingly not only devoid of compassion but leaning heavily towards a streamlined barbarity.  The third is Mr. Tang (Fan Wei), the Chinese assistant of Rabe whose influence he expects will save himself along with his wife (Lan Qin), daughter and sister-in-law Mai.  The Safety Zone has several other notable characters at work, including Miss Jiang (Yuanyuan Gao, "Beijing Bicycle"), in charge of the women's part of the camp, American Minnie Vautrin (Beverly Peckous) and Xiaojiang (Jiang Yiyan), a prostitute who refuses to make herself look like a boy to protect herself from Japanese soldiers and who later makes a bold stance when Ida demands 100 'volunteers' to serve as comfort women to his men.

Chuan makes the horrors of war evident without being overly graphic.  We see innocents locked inside a burning church, others mowed down and buried, along with the still living, in mass graves.  The pregnant women and young mothers who witnessed their children being held aloft on bayonets are represented by the fate of one child which, although bloodless for the audience, is shocking nonetheless.  Working in black and white, director of photography Cao Yu achieves a stark beauty even portraying unimaginable events.  Chuan even ends his film on a note of cautioned hope without sentimentality, always maintaining his balance between the good and evil impulses of men.

"City of Life and Death" was inexplicably not chosen for competition in Cannes last year, but went on to win the Golden Shell in San Sebastian, Europe's third largest festival.  Kudos to distributor Kino Lorber for bringing this masterpiece, one of the greatest war films ever made. to U.S. theaters.

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