City of Life and Death (2009) dir. Lu Chuan
Starring: Ye Liu, Yuanyuan Gao, Hideo Nakaizumi, Wei Fan
By Alan Bacchus
Lu Chuan’s massive dramatic recounting of the atrocious Nanking massacre will probably become a new benchmark in historical cinema. It’s an epic 2 hour and 15 minute black and white, violent, disturbing, shocking and heartbreaking experience that shows the atrocities of soldiers in war with maximum power and effectiveness.
To refresh your knowledge of history, prior to WWII China and Japan were at war with each other and in 1937 the Japanese conquered China’s then capital city, Nanking (or Nanjing). The battle resulted in the killing of 300,000 Chinese soldiers, and in the six weeks that followed tens of thousands of women were raped ritualistically in a massacre for sheer dehumanizing brutality on par with the holocaust.
This event is not widely known and certainly not in the public consciousness like the Holocaust, but 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 30 minutes recreates the last stand by the Chinese to hold the city. The battle scenes are as rough, noisy, intense and harrowing as anything put on screen. If the final battle scene in Saving Private Ryan was 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 by shifting his point of view between the Japanese and Chinese, Chuan manages to create a distinct omniscient view of battle. And between the frenetic handheld gunfire and explosions he 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 wide shot 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 a 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. However, it demands more of its audience than Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. The cinematic brutality on display can be sickening and an emotional beat down, but by providing us with an impeccably authored piece of art, Chuan accomplishes everything this film needs to be.