Just for Fun: Movie Review – Lu Chuan’s City of Life and Death

By , May 23, 2011

Massacre is the word most often used to describe the Japanese invasion and occupation of the city of Nanjing in December 1937.  But Chinese director Lu Chuan’s new movie City of Life and Death (in Chinese “Nanjing!  Nanjing!) reminds us that language is too crude a tool and massacre does too little to describe the horror of the rape of Nanjing. But where words fail, Lu’s movie perhaps comes the closest to capturing what happened during that six week period were 200,000 to 300,000 Chinese people were killed and tens of thousands of Chinese women raped.

Shot in all black and white, City begins slowly, with the Japanese troops in the process of conquering Nanjing, while high-level Chinese officials flee the city, leaving the Chinese civilian population largely unprotected.  There are still some rag-tag Guo Mindang (KMT) soldiers, futilely battling the well-armed and organized Japanese army and Lu does an amazing job of capturing the intensity, confusion and pure adrenaline rush of battle.  Also remaining in Nanjing is  John Rabe, a German businessman and Nazi, who established an International Safety Zone for Nanjing’s civilians, assuming that the Japanese soldiers would abide by the international rules of war.

But they didn’t.  And slowly City descends into an orgy of violence and horror against the Chinese people.  But the movie itself is not overly graphic – at least not compared to the actual photographs and newsreels from the real event.  The gang rape of women, the murder of children, the burying, all largely happen off screen.  But the sounds that emerge from the torture and the anguish on family members’ faces is what makes the movie perhaps even more horrific than the actual photographs.  Through Lu’s movie, the emotional suffering of Nanjing’s “survivors” becomes very real.

And although City was made for the Chinese market, it isn’t particularly one-sided.  Instead, by focusing one half of his story on a sensitive and morally upright (and also Christian which was an interesting addition) Japanese soldier, Lu tries to show that there were some Japanese that also suffered at “doing their job” and in their way tried to rise above.  But ultimately, the facts speak for themselves and that is what makes City even more powerful, heart wrenching and uncomfortable – the atrocities which Lu portrays are not exaggerations; they are the horror that one group of people imposed on another for six weeks in December 1937.

City is only playing for two more days at Film Forum (closes May 24) and for those who want to learn more about the rape of Nanjing and don’t want to spend the time reading Iris Chang’s non-fiction book, The Rape of Nanjing (which the movie is largely based on), should see City.  While Lu’s City is good, it doesn’t offer that much new; so if you read Chang’s book, City will largely be the film version of it.  But Chaun’s artistry is also pretty amazing and he is perhaps the best director to emerge from China in the past decade.

Rating: ★★★½☆

If you missed the movie in the theaters, it is now available on DVD: City of Life and Death: 2-Disc Special Edition

 

One Response to “Just for Fun: Movie Review – Lu Chuan’s City of Life and Death”

  1. […] Movie Reviw: Lu Chaun’s City of Life and Death | China Law & Policy […]

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