Film Review: City of Life and Death


Bottom Line: A page of madness in history re-envisioned with level-headedness and technical virtuosity.

HONG KONG -- Potently cinematic and full of personal stylistic bravura, "City of Life and Death" is one of only a few Chinese fictional features to tackle head-on the so-called "Rape of Nanking": crimes against humanity committed during the Japanese occupation in 1937.

International films tackling the subject have focused on Westerners' roles as saviors, notably the German-made "John Rabe" and the American documentary "Nanking." In a composed yet compelling manner, director Lu Chuan redresses the imbalance by giving voice to how the Chinese experienced this tragedy. Overseas promotion of "City" will benefit from interest fueled by the above works. Several European deals already have been struck.

With China Film Group as a key investor and endorsement by both Party and state authorities, "City" opened strongly as one of the most widely screened films in China, exceeding $23.7 million in a month. It also provoked incensed reactions, including death threats to Lu for an alleged "sympathetic" angle on the Imperial Army.

Despite the 132-minute running time, "City" gets through a lot with its densely packed script. Significant events are tersely chronicled through brief notes in John Rabe's diary, which function like scene-dividers. Lu's strength lies in the visceral impact he makes through indelible images of extreme human conditions with a still-photo collage effect. His vision is well served by august widescreen black-and-white cinematography that simulates the authenticity of archival footage while maintaining historical distance.

As if words or a single story line cannot encompass the magnitude of the catastrophe, the first half-hour of "City" re-creates the Japanese sacking of the Chinese capital Nanjing on Dec. 13, 1937, through a succession of stirring spectacles, mostly unaccompanied by music or dialogue.

The nimble camera stays close to the action, punctuated with impassioned close-ups that run the gamut of emotions, then swings wide in sweeping crowd scenes -- civilians trampled by the stampede of deserting troops, a sea of hands raised in supplication, thousands herded like livestock to be executed en mass. The studio set, built in Changchun (a strategic city in former Japanese puppet-state Manchukuo) evokes the dereliction of a god-forsaken ruin.

The next hour offers respite to settle on a few core characters who typify ordinary folk burdened with critical choices: Teacher Jiang Shuyun (Gao Yuanyuan), who must improvise to rescue a few lives; Rabe's secretary Tang (Fan Wei), who must weigh integrity against his family's welfare; and prostitute Xiaojiang (Jiang Yiyan), who rises to the occasion with a sacrificial act. Such historical figures as Rabe and Minnie Vautrin stay at the periphery of dramatic interaction.

Sometimes events are filtered through the prism of a conflicted and love-struck Japanese trooper Masao Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi). Although this character offers a moral dimension through his eventual breakdown, his point of view partly conveys his division's neurosis and apprehension about its ability to stay in control and a dissipating sense of purpose as time wears on.

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, their traditional sowing dance distorted into a war march. This vacuous show of power is cross-cut with shots of more summary violence. The dynamic editing pulls various documentary-like, melodramatic and surreal elements into a cohesive whole with the panoramic effect of Picasso's "Guernica."

Lu's anthropological fascination with survival under harsh conditions is revealed in "Kekexili: Mountain Patrol," which pits men against the elements as if they share the fate of endangered animals they try to protect. "City" allows Lu to explore on a grander stage the same precarious among between protector, predator and prey. All three emerge as equals in a cosmic scheme as arbitrary as the invaders' atrocities. Yet the ending strikes a cautiously optimistic key rejoicing in human resilience.

Where Lu falls short is character development with such A-list actors as Gao Yuanyuan and Liu Ye -- who gets just a few scenes as a patriotic general -- given no room to bring depth to their patchy and stereotypically virtuous roles. The only stand-out figure is Tang, whose role recalls Jewish accountant Stern (Ben Kingsley) in "Schlinder's List."

Tang's early delusions of his privileged status, and the conflicting interests of being family guardian (protector), collaborator (predator) and a mere pawn (prey), are given complex and humane treatment to reinforce the difficulty of survival.

Certain viewers schooled in research on Nanjing might read Lu's omission of Chinese claims of 300,000-person death toll and infamous (contended) incidents like the "100-person Slicing" contest as appeasement. For others, his refusal to milk the atrocities for sympathy confers dignity on the Chinese who emerge as survivors, not victims.

Opened: April 22 (China)
Production: Beijing Film Studio, CFGC Stellar Megamedia, Jiang Su Broadcasting, Media Asia Films, Shanghai Bailiang Investment present a Chuan Production Film production
Cast: Fan Wei, Gao Yuanyuan, Hideo Nakaizumi, Jiang Yiyan, Liu Ye, John Paisley, Ryuichi Kohata
Director-screenwriter-executive producer: Lu Chuan
Producer: Qin Hong, Han Sanping, Zou Li, John Chon, Andy Zhang
Director of photography: Cao Yu
Production designer: Hao Yi
Music: Liu Tong
Costume designer: Wang Rong
Editor: Teng Yu
Sales: Media Asia Distribution
No rating, 132 minutes