Lu Chuan’s City of Life and Death has the title and the feel of a monument. This widescreen, austerely monochromatic, two-hour-plus collective drama—depicting the worst indignity inflicted by foreigners on modern China, as well as the most terrible atrocity in the run-up to World War II—might have been hewed from rock and colored by soot.
In late 1937, even as Time magazine named Adolf Hitler its “Man of the Year,” the Japanese army besieged and sacked China’s then-capital, the ancient walled city of Nanking. There were hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties and tens of thousands of rapes, followed by decades of denial—one hundred Japanese legislators, all members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, marked the event’s 70th anniversary by denouncing the Rape of Nanking as a fabricated “political advertisement” devised by China’s Communist Party.
Lu’s isn’t the only recent movie to depict the Rape. An American documentary played Film Forum in 2007, and a German feature opened here the same year. Nor is it the first Chinese film on the subject—the mid-’90s saw Hong Kong director Tun Fei Mou’s sensationalist semi-doc Black Sun: The Nanking Massacre and Fifth Generation filmmaker Wu Ziniu’s more nuanced, if schematic, Don’t Cry, Nanking. And there are others. Lu’s distinction lies in the cinematic virtuosity he brings to orchestrating carnage, the calculated attention he pays to human interest, and the globalist, universalizing attitude inherent in both.
To that end, City of Life and Death frequently, if superficially, adopts a Japanese point of view, something that evidently infuriated a sizable chunk of the Chinese audience. (The movie would have been pulled from theaters after one week were it not for the protection of the Communist Party’s chief propagandist; although a popular hit, it received no official awards.) On the festival circuit since 2009, the film has been well-received by foreign critics, recognizing a historical epic in the Griffith-Lean-Spielberg tradition. Schindler’s List is the obvious template: As in Spielberg’s film, there’s a historically accurate humane Nazi on hand, German businessman John Rabe (John Paisley), who sets up and administers a “safety zone” for Nanking civilians until ordered home to the Reich.
Spielberg made his own, intermittently compelling movie on China’s wartime agony in Empire of the Sun. Still, the cloy-max that concludes City of Life and Death with a burst of bogus innocence would have shamed even Spielberg, and Lu’s notion of heroic uplift can verge on socialist realism: The Chinese masses die en masse with patriotic cries on their lips; Nanking’s women volunteer one by one (by one) to protect the safety zone, bravely sacrificing themselves on the altar of Japanese lust; the forced parting of a husband and wife is played out in an arena-like space before the eyes of the Emperor’s army.
Lu focuses on a handful of characters—most significantly Rabe’s initially opportunistic assistant Mr. Tang (comedian Fan Wei) and Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi), a believably naïve Japanese officer with a Christian upbringing, who falls shyly in love with a Japanese comfort woman and, in the midst of a massacre in the safety zone, asks Tang’s sister-in-law if he can have her rosary. Both the Chinese collaborator and the Japanese invader make heroic moral choices, but City of Life and Death is far more convincing as a spectacle of mass atrocity than a drama of individual conscience. It’s most powerful when quasi-anonymous characters fight and die in the imposing space of some vast urban devastation, as when Chinese troops battle each other to flee the fallen city, or when orchestrating war crimes, including gang rapes, on a grand scale. The magnitude of the depicted slaughter (Chinese POWs blown up, buried alive, set on fire, marched into the sea) anticipates Einsatzgruppe atrocities on the Eastern Front.
Transposed to an exotic location, these sequences are strong stuff; perhaps the most devastating thing for a viewer more familiar with World War II’s European theater is the presentation of downtown Nanking as a de facto Auschwitz. Did the Rape of Nanking give the Nazis permission?