Lu's 'City' draws raves, death threats

Sympathetic portrayal of Japan angers some viewers

BEIJING -- Chinese director Lu Chuan is drawing strong mixed reactions -- some threatening -- for his sympathetic portrayal of a Japanese soldier in his black and white drama "City of Life and Death," about the Nanjing Massacre in 1937.

In a country where films have long portrayed the invading Japanese as one-dimensionally evil, Lu cast actor Hideo Nakaizumi as a man haunted by his inability to stop the slaughter ordered by his superior officers.

On a 15-city promotional tour, Lu has fielded sharp questions from Chinese moviegoers, journalists and critics about why he gave the Japanese enemy a human face. The director said he was surprised by the strong nationalist reaction from young moviegoers.

"Most of the audience is accepting," Lu said. "Grandmas and grandpas have made their peace with history." Some of the young, however, are "very, very angry," he said.

With 1,200 prints distributed by the state-run China Film Group, the film, called "Nanjing! Nanjing!" in Chinese, stands to become one of the most widely viewed films the country has ever seen.

The Communist Party's Central Propaganda Department and the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television put it on a list of 10 films recommended to mark the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic of China on Oct. 1.

The film got off to a strong start, earning back $10.3 million of its $12 million budget in its first five days in theaters and sparking sharply divided discussion in China's Internet forums. One comment on from a writer in central China's Hunan province read: "It's not a movie for patriotic education, but a Japanese movie shot by Chinese director. The Nanjing Massacre was not war, but a brutal crime against international law."

Some Chinese film critics -- whose work is vetted by editors monitored by the Propaganda Department -- have called the film a "masterpiece," Lu said. "But others are calling it a piece of shit."

Two young television reporters in the city of Changsha in Hunan accused Lu of being a "traitor," he said. "I felt like I was on trial. They didn't even give me time to answer their questions. They treated me like a criminal."

Things got worse Tuesday, when Lu received an e-mail from a detractor writing in Chinese who called the movie "trash," called Lu a "traitor" to his country and threatened "death by dismemberment."

"I never expected things like this would happen to me. I thought I was making a good film about history," said Lu, sounding rattled. He also forwarded an e-mail in Chinese from someone wishing him "one thousand deaths."

Lu said he would not tell Chinese media about the threats because of concerns that he would be accused of trying to drum up publicity for the film that recently was passed over by the Festival de Cannes.

"I'm not going to show my weakness to them," he said, referring to the Chinese press corps.

Lu said he enjoyed answering questions about his previous work, "Kekexili," a 2004 drama about antelope poachers. "This time, I feel so much pressure," he said. "I am depressed."

The most famous Chinese film about strained relations with Japan never to be screened here is the 2000 winner of the Festival de Cannes' Grand Prix, "Devils at the Doorstep."

Starring and directed by Jiang Wen ("Red Sorghum"), "Devils" -- also in black and white -- tells of 1930s Chinese peasants who become the unwitting captors of a Chinese nationalist and a Japanese soldier -- and what they decide what to do with the two prisoners.

Some Chinese film industry observers say "Devils" never screened here because censors at SARFT's Film Bureau felt its candor about Sino-Japanese animosity and its depiction of Japanese soldiers as murderers would hurt the nations' modern economic relations.

That the China Film Group decided to promote "City" so heavily has prompted some to wonder if China's media regulators were given clearance from higher up in the one-party government to send a message to Chinese citizens to view Japan with forgiveness at a time when China is its newly minted top trading partner.

Without that, there remains a possibility that Lu's film -- and any growth in negative reaction to it -- could provoke a return to the anti-Japanese sentiment piqued here in 2005 when a Japanese history textbook whitewashed past militarism. Chinese hurled bottles at Japan's embassy and vandalized restaurants selling Japanese food.

Although China overtook the U.S. in 2007 as Japan's No. 1 trading partner and the East Asian neighbors' commerce grew 12.5% in 2008 to $266.4 billion, Sino-Japanese trade fell sharply in the fourth quarter and is expected to decline further this year.

Teng Jimeng, professor of film at Beijing's Foreign Studies University, said he felt that "City" was for China Film Group head Han Sanping a purely commercial investment -- but that the film was approved by SARFT for more complex reasons.

"With the Film Bureau, it's very much about cultural policy, and this is a strategic paradigm shift," said Teng, 45, calling Lu's film "revolutionary." "It's high time for the Film Bureau to evaluate the past with Japan. They realize this and they want to change. This is the first time that our past enemy was given a face. This is the first time on film that China is no longer playing the victim card with respect to Japan."