The City of Life and Death – Review and Trailer

Lu Chuan‘s “The City of Life and Death” is a very remarkable film. It is epic in scope and atmosphere, and horrific in topic.

The subject of the film is the Rape of Nanking, or the Nanking Massacre, in which Japanese looting went unchecked for months, resulting in estimations of civilian deaths between 200,000 and 300,000, and up to 80,000 women raped. This topic is as difficult and contentious as any other massacre and the act of showing it in film is also a difficult one. Even more contentious is that it is made by Chinese in China, where the Japanese are often thought of as Nazis are thought of in the West.

However, Lu Chuan manages to portray the inhumanity of war rather well, and somewhat fairly. Most exemplary, one of the main characters is a Japanese soldier who slowly becomes more and more aware of the atrocious behavior of his comrades. He tries to remain humane in a time of utter inhumanity, which turns out to be a great and riveting struggle. The other Japanese, too, are shown in much more a mixed light than one would expect – we see them eating, dancing, joking, playing… In other words, we see them as people who also do horrendous things. The main villain, Ida, however, has very little depth, and is sort of distracting as a character who appears to be too “evil.”

This could be explained, though, that the writer/director chose to caricaturize large parts of the civilian population into single characters with single behaviors, such as Mr. Tang, and all of the remaining conscience in the Japanese army as Kadokawa.  In general, this works without the characters becoming too one-dimensional – with Ida being the exception.  The final scenes, which I will not talk about too much, balanced this complaint from my mind, especially the Japanese soldier who bows.

The war scenes were brilliantly done. The acting is fantastic. Some of the scenes themselves are absolutely brilliant and worthy of note (especially one of the long takes, of the execution of one of the more main characters about 3/4 of the way through.  I won’t spoil it for you, but you will know it by the three firing-range poles – this stayed with me). The sound design is brilliant. The plot is also exceptional, and the color transferred to black and white photography is beautiful.

It’s great film; difficult but great.

However, I do have a few scruples.  First, it was occasionally too melodramatic; for instance, the scene with Tang and his wife.  Secondly, it was still a little too patriotic at times, although perhaps this complaint is unfair given the country it is from – none of the Chinese characters seemed to have any flaws at all. And thirdly, shaky camera.

This part deserves a few words on its own. Shaky camera, a major part of cinema vérité, has its place. It gives films a sort of documentary feel, occasionally causing a little dose of realism to be added. However, in a narrative film that does not do this constantly, it actually detracts from the realistic feeling. Shaky camera, as a function, constantly reminds you that you are watching a film, and that you are looking through a camera and a lens. In this case, I feel a steadicam, dolly, or track would have been a much better at creating his desired effect, and would have done more justice to the scenes he created with so much care.

However, it’s a great film and deserves to be put in the pantheon of films of great injustices.

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