Lu Chuan's "City of Life and Death" is about Japan's 1937 invasion of Nanjing, China, in which over the course of several weeks hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians were massacred and countless women were raped.
Based in part on testimony from survivors, it's the first full-scale historical reenactment of that event to be filmed in China. There have been other movies about the massacre, most recently "John Rabe," but this one, shot in color film desaturated to black and white and costing about $12 million – very high for a Chinese film – is the most powerful and problematic.
Lu, who also wrote the screenplay, has spoken in interviews about how important it was for him, as a Chinese brought up to believe in the bestiality of the Japanese soldiers, to humanize the invaders. This is, I suppose, a noble intention, but when dealing with atrocities of such scope, almost impossible to achieve.
Practically the sole focus of his professed humanism, amid a welter of sadism and bloodletting, is the conflicted Japanese officer Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi), whose love for an imported Japanese "comfort woman" (Yuko Miyamoto) is meant to reveal his tender heart. This kind of storytelling isn't on a much higher level than the Hollywood standard. Neither is the depiction of Ida (Ryu Kohata), Kadokawa's platoon commander, whose villainy is without shading.
The Chinese, by contrast, are depicted in far more ennobling terms. Lu (Liu Ye), a young street-fighting general, has a stolid salt-of-the-earth innocence that recalls the cinematic heroes of Soviet realism. The politics of the Nazi John Rabe (John Paisley), who organized the safety zone inside Nanjing, are played down.
The most nuanced Chinese character is, not accidentally, the most riven. Rabe's longtime assistant Tang (Fan Wei), fearful for the safety of his wife and daughter, ends up in a devastating collusion with the Japanese. Known in China primarily for his comic performances, Fan is a marvelous actor who can convey the deepest emotions with the smallest of gestures. His last sequence in the film is as moving as anything in Rossellini's "Open City," a classic about the Nazi occupation of Rome that Lu's film sometimes references.
Despite its blunt characterizations and simplifications, "City of Life and Death," through the inexorable pileup of gruesome detail, achieves an epic vision of horror. The most horrific scene is, in fact, the least graphic: the conquering dance of the Japanese in the streets of Nanjing – an official celebration of victory – in which soldiers prance and parade in ritualized formation to the beat of a massive Kodo drum. Here, in bloodless miniature, is the true obscenity of war. Grade: B+ (Rated R for wartime violence and atrocities, including sexual assault, and for some sexuality and brief nudity.)