“City of Life and Death” 《南京!南京!》(2009) — exclusive Sweet & Sour Cinema review; includes trailers with English subs [Sweet & Sour Cinema / Sweet & Sour Cinema Exclusive Review]

Still from "City of Life and Death". Photo credits: Kino International

“City of Life and Death” (2009)  —  Review by Zuo Shou 左手

Chinese title:  《南京!南京!》 [Translation:  Nanjing!  Nanjing!]

Written and Directed by Lu Chuan

Starring Liu Ye, Guo Yuanyuan, Fan Wei

TRAILERS:  From Mtime.com, U.S. trailer with English subtitles; Hong Kong trailer with Chinese and English subtitles and different format (I like the HK trailer better, but the video resolution is a little poorer)

May 13, 2011

I’m publishing a review of this film now, about 2 years after it originally appeared in Chinese cinemas, as it’s just gone into limited release in the US in mid-May 2011.  The only location I know it’s showing at this time is New York City.

In the several years that I’ve been in China, this is not only the best film that I’ve seen in a Chinese cinema, it’s best film I’ve seen period.  It’s not only a classic Chinese film, it’s a classic of world cinema.  While I’m not familiar with director/writer Lu Chuan’s highly-regarded Mountain Patrol:  Kekexili, I find that he has shot right to the top of world’s most prestigious film directors’ list with this 4-years-in-the-making masterpiece.

The infamous rampage of Japanese Imperial Army soldiers in the (former) Chinese capital of Nanjing in 1937 is considered one of the most heinous and concentrated incidents of genocide in the 20th century.  Just as many Nazi sympathizers and other falsifiers of history attempt to deny the Nazi genocide of the Jews, to this day Japanese ultra-rightists and -nationalists try to dismiss the reality of the Nanjing Massacre (as well as other WWII atrocities in China) as an elaborate Chinese hoax.

First off, I will qualify that given the subject matter, this film contains strong stuff and it’s unrated in the US for a reason.  Besides a cinematic cataloging of violence against both Chinese soldiers and civilians, it depicts the literal “Rape of Nanking”, which involved the kidnapping of Chinese females to serve as “comfort women” or sexual slaves to Japanese soldiers.  The film is one-of-its-kind in China in that despite the strong images of physical and sexual violence shown, government censors allowed it to be shown in Chinese cinemas, presumably because of the vital subject matter and overall superior craftsmanship.  (Chinese mainland cinemas basically have a “one-size-fits-all” censorship policy, under the rationale that if it’s not suitable for all ages, it shouldn’t be publicly screened.  This puts Chinese theaters’ typical content threshold around what would be rated “PG-13” in the USA.)

“City of Life and Death” should be termed as “based on a true story”, mainly as presented through the eyes of a wide-eyed Japanese conscript named Kadokawa.  Using an episodic format, it weaves together authentic testaments to Japanese war crimes from multi-national witnesses to create an altogether compelling and unforgettable documentary-style re-creation of history.

The film draws comparisons to Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” for many reasons.  Both depict genocide to varying degrees of graphic-ness.  Both are shot in luminous, masterly black & white, which perhaps on the one hand heightens the sense of witnessing a documentary from a pre-Techincolor era and on the other takes the edge off the blood-spilling.  Both feature pivotal representations of historical German Nazi businessmen (in this film, Siemens’ AG China representative John Rabe, whose wartime diaries constitute a major documentation of Japanese crimes in Nanjing) who came to protect people whom their fascist ideology would otherwise direct them to despise or destroy.  What’s more, a sequence of urban warfare in “City of Life and Death” owes an obvious debt to the standard-setting hyper-realistic combat cinematography featured in Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan”.

It is to Lu Chuan’s credit that his film unequivocally surpasses the template of “Schindler”.  Despite its seminal photo-realistic exploration of Nazi anti-Semitic genocide, “Schindler” is saddled with glaring political and creative flaws:  e.g. the sentimental stereotyping of Jewish people as saintly sacrificial lambs to the fascist slaughter, or the Zionism that permeates the project.  In the final analysis, “Schindler” is a prequel, unwitting or not, which sets the stage for a new oppressive and criminal historical cycle of fascistic Israeli atrocities and dehumanizations.

Reviewers pick up on the fact that Lu Chuan “humanizes” the Japanese Imperial Army soldiers and their culture, presenting them as something more than the “Japanese devils” of yore  —  although the devils are certainly there running amok.  However, this is no “Das Boot”, Wolfgang Petersen’s “German Nazis are people too” reactionary cinematic watershed of the ’80s.  What Western reviewers are universally missing that is so essential to the dramatic success of “City of Life and Death” is the humanization of the Chinese, who are not merely stock propaganda victims.  The citizens of Nanjing behave in gradients along the full spectrum of humanity:  with both strength and weakness, resistance and collaborationism, self-sacrifice and mass abject cowardliness.  The last aspect is shown in a remarkably directed early confrontation between a stampede of Chinese Nationalist Army deserters and loyal Chinese troops trying to block them at the city gates, before the Japanese enter the besieged city.

“City of Life and Death” is a must-see, a virtuosic cinematic rendering of stunningly rich panoply of human experience within a WWII crucible of fascist aggression.  See it on the big screen if you can, but do see it; otherwise you’re depriving yourself of a chance to grasp a critical event in the history of China  —  by that I mean both the film itself and the undeniable “Nanjing Massacre” it dramatizes  —  an anti-fascist siren of warning for the ages.

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