City of Life and Death could potentially inflame audiences without even being seen. Also known as Nanjing! Nanjing!, the film presents a character-based view of the Nanking Massacre (a.k.a. The Rape of Nanking), a period from late 1937 to early 1938 when the Japanese Imperial Army occupied Nanking (or Nanjing), then the capital of China, and reportedly committed numerous atrocities against defenseless Chinese soldiers and citizens. Marked by terrible acts ranging from arson and looting to murder, rape, and mutilation, the incident is a polarizing issue between Japan and China even sixty years later, and given the rising patriotism on both sides, one could easily expect the China-produced film to carry anti-Japanese sentiments.
Not so fast. While City of Life and Death contains some patriotic elements, the film is not the flag-waving, jingoistic or Japan-demonizing portrayal of the Nanking Massacre that one might expect. Writer-director Lu Chuan (Kekexili: Mountain Patrol) takes enormous care with his portrait of China's darkest days during the second Sino-Japanese War, offering different viewpoints and making both his Chinese and Japanese characters identifiable. The resulting work is far more balanced and human than one might imagine, and yet still possesses the gravity and power befitting a film of its subject matter.
The film picks up in December 1937 following the occupation of Nanking by the Imperial Japanese Army. While pockets of Chinese soldiers continue to resist, Chinese within the Nanking Safety Zone, a demilitarized area housing civilians, suffer despite their supposed protected status. The film follows several characters caught in and among the conflict, starting with Lu Jianxioing (a very charismatic Liu Ye), a Chinese officer leading a small band of soldiers in opposition to the encroaching Japanese. A battle occurs between Lu's company and some Japanese soldiers, among them a young soldier named Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi), whose initial innocence and lack of overt malice make him immediately sympathetic.
The outcome of this battle is never truly in doubt, and neither is the fate of the captured Chinese soldiers. Immediately, the audience gets an eyeful of what the Japanese reportedly perpetrated - beheadings, live burials, marches into the sea, mass executions of Chinese soldiers. Shot in black and white and with minimal mood-affecting music, the film portrays the atrocities almost matter-of-factly. The use of hand-held camera creates some identification and there are occasional manipulative flourishes, but the audience is largely left to their own devices to decide if what they're watching is sensationalistic or not. Lu Chuan succeeds there - City of Life and Death depicts the events powerfully, eliciting emotions less through nationalism and more through universal means.
In perhaps his most unexpected move, Lu Chuan spreads sympathy around, depicting nearly all his focus characters as not merely victims or perpetrators, but flawed people. The residents of the Safety Zone are protected by John Rabe (John Paisley), a real-life Nazi party member known informally as "China's Oscar Schindler" for his efforts in safeguarding the Chinese. However, Rabe is not depicted as the savior some accounts make him out to be; Rabe ends up getting pushed around by the Japanese such that he seems ineffectual. Meanwhile, Rabe's secretary Mr. Tang (Fan Wei, Ticket) seeks to protect his family, and will selfishly sell out his fellow Chinese to achieve his goal. A Japanese officer (Ryu Kohata) carries out atrocities with some relish, and yet he develops a sympathetic affection for select Chinese. One headstrong, prideful young woman (Jiang Yiyan, Deadly Delicious) is shattered after she is raped by Japanese soldiers, but shows bravery when the Japanese call for the forced conscription of Chinese to serve as "comfort women." The characters each play a specific part in Lu's historical tapestry, but the director takes care to make them each human beings.
Lu delivers set pieces too, bringing his characters and situations towards strong dramatic payoffs. Some sequences are wrenching; the fate of the comfort women is one such moment, as are the executions of scores of Chinese soldiers. The opening battle sequence between Lu Jianxioing's men and the Japanese is visceral in presentation, with both sides clearly affected by the chaos and mortal danger of the battlefield. Another emotionally charged sequence features Gao Yuanyuan (Shanghai Dreams, Rob-B-Hood) as a missionary teacher named Miss Jiang, who risks her own life to save individual Chinese, one by one. The character ultimately proves stirring in her nobility, and carries one of the film's most powerful moments.
Gao's character, like most in the film, serves such a specific purpose in this portrait of the Nanking Massacre that one may hesitate to call her three-dimensional. That may be perhaps the biggest flaw with City of Life and Death - that it trades true complexity for a very deliberate and balanced portrayal of the Nanking Massacre and its human cost. This is most seen in the character of Kadokawa, who progresses from naïve innocent to scarred veteran, the atrocities he witnesses ultimately taking such a toll that he becomes nearly the most sympathetic character in the film. However, despite the effectiveness of his character arc, Kadokawa comes off as a situational template - essentially your average human who gets thrown into this harrowing moral quagmire, with his arc seemingly reflective of thematic need rather than the character itself.
That criticism - that City of Life and Death is perhaps too constructed - is only a minor one at present. Some accounts of the Nanking Massacre paint the events as actually worse than Lu Chuan depicts them; some of the more gruesome accounts, like mass graves full of children or death by mutilation, are never truly addressed. That lack of full exploration and the film's careful approach leave room for another director to one day craft a more definitive film on the subject. Right now, however, City of Life and Death is perhaps the closest thing we have, and easily convinces of its relevance. With strong acting, stunning cinematography, uncommonly thoughtful direction and flawless themes, City of Life and Death is nothing less than a powerful achievement.
What the film may not do is sway the politically-minded. Viewers who place nationalism or politics above Lu Chuan's universal human concerns may be upset by what they perceive to be an apologetic portrait of the parties involved. Some will say the Japanese are not presented as evil enough, others will say they're too evil. Others will say that China has no right to portray themselves as victims given their trespasses in neighboring countries - or even on their own soil. Those issues, and indeed the lack of acknowledgement from both countries and their governments about their past misdeeds, are not meant to be addressed here. It's still likely that some people will use Lu Chuan's work as a reason to air their objections about China, Japan, or perhaps both - but if they do, let's hope they actually watch the film first. Hopefully, City of Life and Death will be embraced, rather than rejected. It should be seen regardless. (Kozo, 2009)