City of Life and Death takes place in 1937, during the height of the Second Sino-Japanese War. The Japanese enter Nanking and begin to exterminate those who have chosen to stay. Some are shot, others are beheaded. The images of war, from gated prisoners being shot down like rows of dominoes to Japanese soldiers literally dancing on civilians’ graves, are every bit as powerful as the battle scenes from Saving Private Ryan. The women are escorted to the Imperial Army’s main camp. All of them are raped. Some are also executed. Those who survive the rapes and killings are sent back to the Safety Zone where they either die of their wounds or go insane. I thought shooting this in black and white was a great way to show the gritty and dark side of humanity depicted in this shocking real film.
The Japanese occupation of China is still a hard topic for most Chinese people to speak about and it’s the source of a lot of hatred towards Japanese. Lack of characters’ backgrounding gives the pic a visceral immediacy and makes the historical situation the movie’s real star. The film tells the story of several figures, both historical and fictional, including a Chinese soldier, a schoolteacher, a Japanese soldier, a foreign missionary, and John Rabe, a Nazi businessman who would ultimately save thousands of Chinese civilians. Sometimes Lu suddenly drops us in the middle of chaos unfolding so quickly there’s no way to find our bearings.
The see-saw back and forth leads to a cumulative queasiness. The name of the game is to give the viewer a sense of the total dislocation and disorientation of war, a psychological grey zone that renders combatants and civilians caught in the crossfire. The last hour picks up momentum, especially in the final reel, which contains a startling sequence of Japanese soldiers carrying an “o-mikoshi” shrine through the eerie ghost town in mock festive celebration. City of Life and Death keeps its focus tightly on these characters and their journeys, rather than portraying at large the entire massacre.
I’d like to express my sympathy to the victims of the massacre and respect to the hard work by the film crew. City of Life and Death is an incredible examination of the hell that human beings create during war. It is at times difficult to watch, but comes with my highest recommendation. Even if the characterisation is a shade too generic, and it’s often hard to respond to savagery on this magnitude, the very fact that these events are being brought to light with such care makes this a significant film.