New Release Tuesday: City of Life and Death (2009)

17 05 2011

This week I am going to feature an older film that is finally making it to North American shores. It is most likely limited in release so make sure you check out if your city has it running.

This harrowing film depicts the infamous “Rape of Nanking” during the Second Sino-Japanese war in 1937. An estimated 200,000 unarmed soldiers and civilians were executed and up to 80,000 women raped during the occupation of the ruined city, yes this is not going to be a happy film. Director Chuan Lu splits the story up into three primary perspectives, although it does sway to those near them occasionally. We have: Masao Kadokawa, a young Japanese soldier; Lu Jianxiong, a Chinese soldier still guerrilla fighting within the city; and Mr. Tang, an assistant to the German businessman (Mr. Rabe) who is in charge of the “Nanking Safety Zone”, an area for the wounded as well as women and children. From each character we view the many atrocities that take place almost to a point of numbness. The film borders on being heavy-handed but I am conflicted on whether what occurs could ever rightfully be called that. “City of Life and Death” just might be, perhaps appropriately, like war: I’ll never forget it and yet never wish to see it again.

” You know their power. You have no choice.”

“City of Life and Death” tells a story that cannot be told in any other form other than historical context because it would be shunned by society. Movies can draw metaphors from what happened to the Native Americans or during the Crusades or, if they are careful enough, even the holocaust but the Rape of Nanking presents a whole different animal. It is pure indulgence of our lowest qualities as humans and shows us what we are capable of, all of us, when there is no one with authority to say “No”. There were no orders, no political or theological stances to be had, just people stealing, murdering, and raping because they could. We have all had at least thought about being with someone we couldn’t, wanting something we don’t have, or wishing harm in some form on another. Of course most don’t act on this because of our morals and society, but when the mob says yes and we gorge, something like Nanking can happen. The fact this occurred less than a century ago makes this all the more frightening. It is Lord of the Flies on a epic scale if you will, but a city full of civilians, women and children instead of an island and a powerful army instead of children. Through our three major perspectives we get every side of the occupation and we see it’s effect on the human spirit. All three are good men, honorable men, but unfortunately they are also all powerless men who must sit and watch, as the viewer does, helpless.

“Life is more difficult than death”

Perhaps the best decision make by Chuan Lu was to film the movie in black and white. It gives it a 50s classical feel but more importantly a cover for what occurs on film. Within the first couple minutes the mood is set and the dark tones on the screen insure that the audience never forgets it. The cinematography allows us to be a fly on the way, rarely giving us any one perspective. Allowing us to see many different actions and reactions, we can effectively view several different views characters have on what is occurring. Perhaps the best word to describe “City of Life and Death” is “raw”. The little use of music adds to that, every so often we’ll get a very meek piano or strings warming up but those instances are few and far between. Overall it is through the extreme care and dedication that was taken during the production of the movie that makes this such a powerful film to behold. One that will undoubtedly stand the test of time and be remarked upon as one of the greatest and most effective war movies ever made.

“City of Life and Death” is powerful, that is without question, but it is also long and dense. Add in the constant violence and you have a movie that isn’t all that easy to get through. Some scenes feel like they are put in purely to keep the viewer feeling how awful everything is and some acts verge on being heavy-handed on the subject. Nevertheless it is a movie that should not missed by anyone.

Score: 95/100

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