DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: TIFF 2009: City of Life and Death

Friday, 11 September 2009

TIFF 2009: City of Life and Death

City of Life and Death (2009) dir. Lu Chuan
Starring: Ye Liu, Yuanyuan Gao, Hideo Nakaizumi, Wei Fan


Lu Chuan’s massive dramatic recounting of the atrocious Nanking massacre will probably become a new benchmark in historical cinema. An epic 2 hour 15mins black and white, violent, disturbing, shocking and heartbreaking experience which shows the atrocities of soldiers in war with maximum power and effectiveness.

To refresh your knowledge of history, before WWII China and Japan were at war by themselves and in 1937 the Japanese conquered China’s then capital city, Nanking (or Nanjing). The battle resulted in 300,000 Chinese soldiers killed, and in the six weeks that followed the raping of tens of thousands of women ritualistically in a massacre, for shear dehumanizing brutality, on par with the holocaust.

This event is not widely known and certainly not in the public consciousness like the Holocaust, but Lu Chuan’s dramatic cinematic record should change this. It’s a precise and painstakingly detailed account put to screen with seemingly no production expense spared.

Yu Cao’s breathtaking anamorphic B&W cinematography immediately puts us into a distinct world of cinematic integrity and realism. The opening 30mins recreates the last stand by the Chinese to hold the city. The battle scenes are as rough, noisy, intense and harrowing as anything put to screen. If the final battle scene of “Saving Private Ryan” were shot in B&W, it would have looked like this. With a history of realistically-rendered war films behind it, and with ‘Saving Private Ryan”, and ‘Band of Brothers” as benchmark precedents, it’s difficult to make cinematic war fresh. But Lu Chuan, by shifting his point of view between the Japanese and Chinese, manages to create a distinct omniscient view of battle. And in between the frenetic handheld gunfire, and explosions Chuan takes time to pull out and frame some truly awesome compositions. The sight of hundreds of Japanese surrendering with their hands up in a church is the stuff of David Lean and the awe of watching hundreds of soldiers gunned down to their deaths in a single wideshot is almost unparalleled.

For the second and third acts, Chuan shifts to the even more gruesome plight of the civilian refugees in the aftermath. We watch as the Japanese soldiers, seemingly left to their own devices and unmonitored by Japanese generals, sadistically corral and torture the women with a disturbingly organized system of ritualistic rape. From here Chuan moves from “Saving Private Ryan” to ‘Schindler’s List”. The cinematography is certainly visual reminder of the effect, but the tone of random, inexplicable violence and genuine heroism, and courage echoes Spielberg’s benchmark film as well.

Out of all this gruesomeness emerge a number of distinct and developed characters. Tang who starts out as a representative of the Nazi party and who cowardly desires to save his own ass goes through the greatest change, rising at the end of the film to become a selfless hero and courageous leader. And the sadistic Japanese leader is as cruel and vicious as Ralph Fiennes' summation of Nazi evil, Amon Goeth.

A film like ‘City of Life and Death’ needs to be made as a matter of dramatic cinematic record. The film demands more of its audience than ‘Schindler’s List’ of ‘Saving Private Ryan’ though. The cinematic brutality on display can be sickening and an emotional beatdown, but by providing us with an impeccably authored piece of art Chuan accomplishes everything this film needs to be.

1 comment :

Anonymous said...

This was the best film I saw in Toronto this year. The comparison to Spielberg's work is unavoidable, but unlike Schindler and Private Ryan, I was never pulled out of the film's world with manipulative shots that reminded me who to care about. Demanding, yes, but this was a great movie.