Lu Chuan’s City of Life and Death, a widescreen epic that looks like it was filtered through ash and charcoal, hypnotically depicts the Japanese Imperial Army’s siege and rape of Nanking, then the Chinese capital, in December 1937. It has been shown in films before, in documentaries (including the HBO-backed Nanking, inspired by the late Iris Chang’s controversial book), dramas (Don’t Cry, Nanking) and exploitation films, but never with such concentrated awe and mournfulness—or with such tendentious grace. It is to the Japanese genocide what Schindler’s List is to the Holocaust, and with his use of black and white handheld cinematography Lu may well have had Steven Spielberg’s stately threnody in mind.
Though leavened with acts of heroism and ameliorating sentiment, City of Life and Death conjures nothing less than an apocalypse. After ferocious bombardment by planes and tanks, the Japanese forces enter Nanking Ground Zero. There progress is impeded only by a last-ditch fight in the rubble—reminiscent of that in Full Metal Jacket and rather too thrillingly choreographed and edited—by a rag-tag army of grizzled vets and kids led by an ace Nationalist guerrilla, Lu Jianxiong (Liu Ye), the film’s resident handsome warrior hero. Then the Hirohito-sanctioned slaughter begins.
Street executions by firing squads and bayoneting are conducted by rote. Multitudes of captured Chinese soldiers are mown down by machine guns. Several hundred more are burned alive in a warehouse. Some are thrown into pits and covered with earth. Severed heads dangle in the air—execution by sword being a favorite sport among the Japanese soldiers who competed against each to be the first to claim a hundred victims. (More is made of this in Mou Tun Fei’s 1994 shocker Black Sun: The Nanking Massacre, which shamefully blends documentary footage with hyperbolic melodrama and action and egregiously caricatures the oppressors.)
Lu doesn’t neglect the horrendous ordeal of Nanking’s women and children. One woman lies dead and naked by the roadside. Another is coaxed out into the open from the safety zone, gang-raped and afterwards tossed out of a window to her death. A child suffers a similar fate. Other women, forced to become “comfort women,” are raped to death in the makeshift brothel, their desecrated bodies wheeled away in a barrow. Verbal details are given about other atrocities that Lu could not have possibly filmed. The carnage he displays is only the tip of the iceberg: the actions perpetrated and often recorded by some Japanese soldiers in Nanjing could not be recreated by a mainstream filmmaker without contravening obscenity laws.
If this sounds unbearable, City of Life and Death is not just a grim parade of war crimes—the “life” in the title is a tribute to those who fought to preserve the lives of others, or at least a measure of pride and dignity when death was unavoidable. Closeups and snatched conversations establish intimacy with a cross-section of Chinese who sacrifice themselves, those they save, and their foreign supporters. As well as Lu Jianxiong, the snub-nosed boy soldier (Liu Bin) he ruefully smiles at, and their rotund comrade (Zhao Yisui), there’s the caring woman schoolteacher, Miss Jiang (Gao Yuanyuan), who runs the safety zone with the “good” Nazi John Rabe (John Paisley), subject of a 2009 film and the film’s believably concerned Schindler figure.
Minnie Vautrin (Beverly Peckous), the Illinois missionary teacher who protected thousands of Chinese women from rape at the Ginling Girls College, is given a few scenes. Miss Jiang takes under her wing Xiao Jiang (Jing Yiyan), a raped prostitute who defiantly refuses to cut her hair to protect herself and volunteers for the brothel to save others from doing so. A kind of episodic weave, its parts linked by English-language postcard titles tracing the city’s doom, the movie also follows Mr. Tang (Fan Wei), Rabe’s jittery assistant, his pregnant wife and his sister-in-law, whose collective role is to show how families were torn apart.
For his protagonist and anatagonist, however, Lu (who wrote the screenplay) chose Japanese soldiers—much to the chagrin of Chinese audiences. Both witness and accidental slayer of women hiding in a confession box, the main figure for audience identification and the film’s passive conscience, Masao Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi) wanders around the smoking city in a conflicted mood of national pride and incomprehension. He loses his virginity to and falls innocently in love with a Japanese comfort woman (Yuko Miyamoto), even bears her gifts, and is then surprised when she fails to recognize him on his return. He watches random killings and massacres and the burning of corpses, offers rice to Xiao Jiang in the brothel but refuses to have sex with her. His defining act is a mercy killing. When he participates in the victory celebration, the stylized grimace he assumes suggests agony. Both he and Lu Jianxiong are called upon to look directly at the camera: one is a J’accuse, the other is a mea culpa.
Kadokawa’s opposite number, the equally ubiquitous commander Osamu Ida (Ryu Kohata), is a soldier without conscience, who carries out his orders uncomplainingly—sometimes with a little glee. Himself a rapist, he’s the officer who orders a hundred Chinese women to become comfort girls and who matter-of-factly kills one who has been driven mad by her experiences. When Rabe leaves Nanking, ordered home by Hitler for jeopardizing Nazi-Japanese relations, Ida cruelly taunts Tang, who’s attemping to bring out his wife and a disguised Chinese soldier at the same time. Learning only two can travel with Rabe, Tang does something that elicits even the unfeeling Ida’s grudging respect. Amid multiple deaths, including those of the characters we have grown to care about the most, Ida survives Nanking. Not only a realist, he’s a symbol of the harsh reality that allowed the rapists of Nanking to escape their crimes unpunished. Japan still hasn’t apologized to China for the civilian deaths. City of Life and Death looks like a reminder.
artinfo.com, May 12, 2011