“City of Life and Death” is among the greatest war films ever made. Rich in humanist themes and absolutely unflinching in its depiction of the moral chaos and physical violence of war, Lu Chuan’s film about the Japanese occupation of Nanking in 1937 isn’t merely one of the year’s best films, it’s a powerful work of art and a testament to the expressive essence of pure cinema.
Inevitable comparisons will be made between “City of Life and Death” and Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan.” Chuan’s opening battle scenes between the Japanese invaders and a Chinese platoon – led by a stalwart patriot (Liu Ye) – have the complex staging, the realistic, you-are-there sound recording, and the frenetic yet coherent editing and camerawork that distinguished “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan.” Also, one can’t watch Cao Yu’s shimmering black-and-white photography here – especially the grimy, crumbling interiors awash in shafts of daylight – without recalling Janusz Kaminski’s concentration-camp sequences in “Schindler’s List.” Indeed, even at the level of story craft, Chuan shares Spielberg’s instincts in how to overlap and weave adjoining scenes together, thereby tightening the pacing and heightening their emotional impact.
But “City of Life and Death” is arguably a more mature work than either of Spielberg’s aforementioned Oscar winners. Spielberg’s movies – and, frankly, mainstream Hollywood movies, in general – telegraph their emotional cues so heavy-handedly that, as viewers, we too often feel bludgeoned into submission (this tendency has sunk many an otherwise worthy Spielberg effort). The emotional resonance of Chuan’s film, on the other hand, is low-key, more subtle; “City of Life and Death” doesn’t need to strong-arm its audience into deploring war and its inhumanities because that message reveals itself in the film’s naked presentation of events. Its quiet, understated quality allows viewers the freedom to process – morally and emotionally – the story’s unfolding horrors in their own personal ways.
To protect the thousands of survivors fleeing the Japanese siege, a group of Western ex-patriots in Nanking and their Chinese colleagues establish a Safety Zone. Chuan follows several of the Safety Zone’s inhabitants in their attempts to placate their aggressors, from administrators like Mr. Tang (Fan Wei) who, as a Nanking native, endures heartbreaking loss and humiliation, as well as refugees, particularly the women. The Nanking occupation is notorious for the rampant sexual victimization that soldiers inflicted on the women and girls, both Chinese and Japanese (prostitutes shipped in by the army), and a great deal of this film, rightly so, examines the barbarity and dehumanization of rape.
But in its desire to offer a mosaic of the Nanking saga, the film’s grand canvas can’t accommodate for deep evaluations of its characters – as compelling as they are – beyond their individual function in the screenplay. Characters are variously heroic, stoic, noble or tragic, and so we view them more as types rather than distinctive, nuanced creations. For instance, the storyline of Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi), a callow Japanese recruit horrified by his experience, involves him falling in love with a jaded Japanese prostitute, and, as such, never transcends the timeworn clichés of the naïf falling for the wrong woman. It’s such limitations that under serve Chuan’s otherwise ambitious vision.
What lingers, though, are not the film’s flaws but its masterful achievements. The power of Chuan’s film lies in the textures of its images and sounds – in the long passages of silently suffering faces, in the eerily peaceful images of the city’s streets littered with rubble and the dead, and in the long, almost-hallucinatory sequence in which Japanese dancers and drummers commemorate their victory. It’s in these moments that the story tells itself, and when we feel that here is that rare filmmaker who embraces the classical essence of the medium. Viewers wishing to learn more about the so-called Rape of Nanking should turn to Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman’s equally poignant, harrowing 2007 documentary “Nanking,” alongside which “City of Life and Death” makes an excellent companion piece.
Written/Directed by: Lu Chuan
Cast: Liu Ye, Gao Yuanyuan, Hideo Nakaizumi, Fan Wei, Jiang Yiyan, Ryu Kohata, Liu Bin, John Paisley, Beverly Peckous, Qin Lan, Sam Voutas, Yao Di, Zhao Yisui