For all its sobriety and restraint, the film is likely to incite a mixture of anger and despair.
Released in China as the evocatively titled Nanjing! Nanjing!, City of Life and Death is an almost unwatchably harrowing tour de force from Lu Chuan. One of the country’s most exciting young directors, Chuan was previously responsible for the nail-biting drama of Mountain Patrol, in which he followed a murderous outfit of anti-poaching volunteers in the frozen wastes of the Tibetan border.
If anything, City of Life and Death touches on an even more dangerous subject than China’s occupation of its neighbour – namely, the horrors endured by the citizens of Nanjing after the historic capital surrendered to Japanese forces in 1937. Despite the presence of a putative Safety Zone overseen by international observers, the Japanese army was given free reign to do as it pleased. The result was the systematic rape of the city’s female population, and the massacre of over 200,000 soldiers and civilians.
Chuan guides us through this maelstrom with a multi-stranded narrative whose clarity of purpose only serves to amplify the terror and atrocity on screen. We begin with the shattered remnants of the Chinese army in a series of deafening set pieces in the rubble of the city. The scale and execution of these scenes is almost literally breathtaking – leaving the audience in the same state of shell-shocked immobilisation as the soldiers themselves. The massacres that follow – unarmed prisoners machine-gunned, burned alive and forced into the sea to drown – are simply the knockout punch.
But worse is to come. In the Safety Zone, neither Nazi businessman John Rabe (John Paisley) or his assistant, Mr Tang (Fan Wei), can keep the Japanese at bay. Chuan’s merciless depiction of events and the utter inhumanity of the occupiers (in one scene, a young girl is thrown from a window as if she was nothing more than a bundle of rags) bears comparison to Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. Indeed, City of Life and Death is shot in similar tones of black and white, which, far from placing the film at some comfortable historical distance, lend it an air of terrifying authenticity.
But Chuan’s most controversial move is to offer us a third perspective – that of a young Japanese soldier, Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi). He emerges as the film’s unlikely conscience, the one whose numb disbelief most closely echoes the audience’s own.
This didn’t go down well in China, where the Nanjing Massacre is central to the national psyche and the cultural animosity reserved for the Japanese. And indeed, for all Chuan’s protestations that he wants his film to start a new dialogue, it’s difficult to know how to react to it.
For all its sobriety and restraint, the film is likely to incite a mixture of anger and despair. Scenes in which the women of the camp choose a hundred volunteers to service the Japanese soldiers, or in which mothers decide whether to save a husband or child are simply beyond either emotional or intellectual comprehension.
That makes City of Life and Death a truly visceral experience – something that bypasses the synapses to lodge in some inner place. But at times it comes close to being physically unbearable. This is as raw as cinema gets.
Lu Chuan is one of China’s most exciting young directors, and this is a huge subject.
None whatsoever. But you will be rooted to the spot, mouth open, even when your eyes are closed.
One of the most powerful films you’ll ever see. Literally unforgettable.