A Chinese view of war's horrors
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, June 10, 2011
There are a number of things that set “City of Life and Death” apart from other films about the Battle of Nanking during the second Sino-Japanese War (more commonly known as the Rape of Nanking or the Nanking Massacre).
One is the gritty black-and-white cinematography, which lends the horrific dramatized events — set in an atmosphere choked with the dust and smoke of a city reduced to rubble — a documentary feel. Another is the relatively minimal dialogue. Although the story is far from wordless, Chinese writer-director Chuan Lu tells of both complex events and complex emotions almost exclusively through action. It’s a muscular, physical movie, pieced together from arresting imagery and revelatory gestures, large and small.
It’s also told, substantially, from the point of view of one of the bad guys.
That’s not entirely fair. The central character, a Japanese army sergeant named Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi), is shown to have a conscience. He’s conflicted about his participation in the events the movie depicts, which take place in late 1937 and early 1938, and center on the Japanese conquest of the former Chinese capital of Nanking (now called Nanjing). Those events include the wholesale slaughter of innocent civilians and the rape and enforced sexual servitude of numerous women, known as “comfort women,” and including not just Chinese but Japanese and Koreans.
Other major players in the drama include Xiaodouzi (Bin Liu), a Chinese child-soldier who miraculously survives the brutality that claims the lives of so many of his comrades, and John Rabe (John Paisley), an actual historical figure who — like a less-well-known Oskar Schindler — was a German industrialist and Nazi who used his position of influence with the Japanese to shelter many Chinese in Nanking’s so-called Safety Zone.
Interestingly, another recent fact-based drama about Rabe (2009’s “John Rabe,” starring Ulrich Tukur and Steve Buscemi) covered the same subject matter, albeit in a far more conventionally dramatic way. In “City of Life and Death,” however, Rabe is relegated to a supporting role. Here, it’s his Chinese assistant, Mr. Tang (Wei Fan), who demands — and deserves — more of our attention.
Through these characters and others — including a Japanese comfort woman named Yuriko (Yuko Miyamoto) that Kadokawa loses his virginity to and then falls in love with — Lu tells a heartbreaking and, at times, almost unbearable story.
At its best, it’s one that’s whispered, not shouted. One of the most wrenching moments in the film comes after a massacre sequence in which hundreds of Chinese have been burned, buried alive and mowed down with Japanese machine guns. As the young Xiaodouzi gazes out upon a field strewn with corpses that fill the screen, the filmmaker turns away from the carnage and focuses on the boy’s face, as a man standing next to him covers Xiaodouzi’s eyes.
It’s a gesture you may be tempted to make, too.
Kadokawa himself shares that impulse. Toward the end of the film, after having witnessed — and been complicit in — more brutality, in a matter of weeks, than most people see in a lifetime, he turns to another Japanese soldier and announces, “Life is more difficult than death.”
Kadokawa’s next action is, in a way, an attempt to shut out the horror. But Lu keeps his camera running, forcing us to look.
In Japanese, Mandarin, English and German with English subtitles. Contains copious violence and brutality, some nudity and sex, scenes of rape and brief obscenity.