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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on DVDs. Pick of the Week: New. City of Life and Death

 

City of Life and Death (Also Blu-ray) (Four Stars)

China: Chuan Lu, 2009 (Kino International)

I. The Rape of Nanking

In December, 1937, the Japanese Imperial Army invaded Nanking (now “Nanjing“), the erstwhile capital city of beleaguered China. Hell followed them.

For the next few weeks, that army went on one of the worst massacres, and murder sprees in the annals of 20th century warfare. At the end of this bloodbath, known as the Nanking Massacre or the Rape of Nanking, an estimated 300,000 Chinese had been killed (more “conservative” estimates say 200,000). Over 80,000 women, including children and the elderly, had been raped, tortured and then often murdered as well.

The city had been burned, looted and turned into a battleground and a prison, then a bloody brothel and finally a smoking charnel house, with the dead dumped in graves by wagonloads. The reverberations from the massacre — like the reverberations of the Holocaust or the genocides of Cambodia, the Ukraine, the Armenians and elsewhere — will never really end.

Citing those figures (of the dead) can become almost numbing. They can begin to lose sense, meaning. The Nanking Massacre It was a mass tragedy, and now comes a film worthy of that tragedy, a lament worthy of that suffering, an elegy worthy of those dead, a cinematic masterpiece to fix those horrible, poignant, terrifying images on the pages of our memories. We ignore it to our loss.

II. City of Life and Death

City of Life and Death, a great, overpowering film by the phenomenal young Chinese writer-director Chuan Lu, is a chronicle of that hell and what it may have been like to live (or die) through it — if you were a Chinese civilian or defeated Chinese soldier caught in the maelstrom, or a Japanese soldier, given a license to kill and carte blanche for atrocity by your superior officers, as the spoils of “victory.”

At first, as in Spielberg’s riveting “newsreel” Omaha Beach sequence in Saving Private Ryan, the war is shown to us as an ensemble piece, without focusing much on individuals. Armies march, snipers shoot, planes screech down from the skies, rifle-fire and mortar fire beat out their hellish tattoo. The Japanese Army, having conquered Shanghai, driving General Chiang Kai Shek into the interior, march on Nanking, whose soldiers have either fled, or are trapped in a hopeless situation, ordered by Chiang to hold their ground and to prevent civilians from escaping. The Japanese quickly hammer their combatants into submission, and we see most of this not from ground zero, Spielberg’s perspective in the Private Ryan D-Day scene, but from above or in long shot: from the Eye of God, or that of a great painter, picking out with beautiful but harrowing precision, the complex patterns of brutality and death below or in the distance.

Gradually, the people of the story emerge. Soldiers, officials, helpless civilians. Some of Lu’s script is factual, taken from the historical record and from eye-witness testimony. (One historical source may be Iris Chang’s recent book “Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II.“). Some of it is invented or dramatized. Some of it is a mixture of fact and fiction. All of it seems real as you watch it — incredibly, heart-breakingly, annihilatingly real — or transported by the artistry of Lu, and his cast and crew into that realm of poetic re-imagining and of high art that can be more powerful, lasting and more memorable than reality.

We see — in haunting frescoes of warfare and persecution that grip the mind and tear at the nerves and heart — the almost unimaginable suffering of Nanking’s terror-stricken populace (the mass shootings, raids, tortures and violations), as well as the dehumanization or demoralization of their captors. Primarily, we focus on the fictional Japanese soldier Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi), who is increasingly changed and sensitized by the horror, even as his comrades seem increasingly desensitized, hardened or numbed. None of this is done in an exploitive or sensationalistic manner, yet all of it accumulates into a nearly devastating chronicle of death: a movie landscape of pain and horror that builds finally to an unexpected, but nearly transfixing and exhilarating climax.

Lu’s film has an almost relentless narrative grip. You cannot look away from it, even though, many times, you may want to. We watch, in scenes of almost unbearable tension, the desperate attempts by foreign observers — like the steadfast Chinese health worker, Miss Jiang (Yuanyuan Gao), the largely impotent German community leader John Rabe (John Paisley) and Rabe’s initially self-serving, frightened aide Mr. Tang (comedian Wei Fan) and others — to rescue the populace, or sometimes just to rescue themselves and their families.

Every scene seethes with emotion, throbs with high drama and suspense — and if I have made any of it sound clichéd or sentimental or in any way spurious-sounding, it is the fault of my writing and not of the film. City of Life and Death is an extraordinary work, a true cinematic landmark. Very simply, it is one of the greatest of all anti-war films.

III. Black and White

Lu’s movie is shot in brilliantly bleak black-and-white cinematography (by Yu Cao, who, on the strength of this one film deserves to be ranked with such photographic masters of black and white as Gregg Toland, Boris Kaufman or James Wong Howe), and that monochrome photography proves to a perfect artistic choice, as it also was in Schindler’s List and Letters from Iwo Jima. It’s shot on beautifully grim period sets (by production designer Yi Hao) that evocatively recreate the rubble-filled streets and urban battlegrounds and concrete graveyards of a ‘30s Chinese city under siege.

Like Eisenstein, Lu is a master of crowd scenes. But, like Renoir or Kurosawa, he’s also a master of picking out the faces in the crowd. Besides the cast members listed above, all exemplary, Lu’s movie boasts a huge ensemble of first-class, selfless actors who rarely ring false even in the most extreme scenes. Just a partial list of those excellent players: Ye Lui as the brave street commander Lu, Ryo Kuhata as the brutal officer Ida, Beverly Peckous as foreign observer Minnie Vautrin, Lan Qin as the helpless Mrs. Tang — and virtually every other role, no matter how small.

Together with the filmmakers, the actors all help create a portrait of warfare that burns itself into your mind like few others: a picture of the horrors of war to rank alongside Grand Illusion, All Quiet on the Western Front, Night and Fog, Schindler’s List, Kanal, Rome: Open City, Paths of Glory and very few others. It’s no coincidence that all but one of the films in the last sentence are in black-and-white. It’s the ideal medium for this story, these people, this tragedy

I’m sure that much of the above begins to sound like hype and hyperbole, especially since I‘ve already proclaimed one other “inarguable” film masterpiece (Malick’s The Tree of Life) last week. But I doubt many of you will be disposed to argue or disagree, when you see City of Life and Death, as you should. It’s a movie of such rare artistry, such stark, near-hallucinatory terror and awesome shock, such overwhelming sadness, that it should bypass all resistance.

Indeed, the handful of critics so far who have found this great movie flawed or lacking in a major way usually suggest political problems. Some seem worried that City of Life and Death may be sympathetic somehow to Communists, present or past, though if ever a cinematic vision transcended all politics, it’s Lu’s humane and open-hearted viewpoint here — something demonstrated by his placing of the sympathetic Japanese soldier, Kadokawa, at the center of his film. (That choice actually spurred protests among some Chinese audiences in Lu’s homeland).

 Others are clearly bothered by the fact that another somewhat sympathetic character, John Rabe, is a German businessman and Nazi, and that the film shows Rabe trying to save Chinese victims from the slaughter, until Adolf Hitler — worried that Rabe‘s actions will alienate the Nazis’ Japanese allies — calls him back to Germany, effectively throwing the rest of the Nanking people into the hands of their executioners. But those are the usually accepted historical facts of the real-life Rabe’s role in the Rape of Nanking. It seems obvious that Lu is pointing up a terrible irony here: that this German businessman naively tried to stave off one massacre only to return home to become part of a far bloodier Nazi killing machine that triggered an even vaster Holocaust, with millions of victims.

 Who, in fact, were the main villains and propagators of the Nanking Massacre? The soldiers? Their officers? Their generals? The movie doesn’t dwell on this, but the Japanese soldiers marching on Nanking had been supposedly promised a license to kill (and rape) by their officers, as “payment” for a hard battle campaign. And the man (according to most accounts in Wikipedia), who facilitated and allowed all this violence and inhumanity, by issuing an order to “kill the captives,” was a spoiled, rich-boy, right-wing member of the imperial family, Prince Yasuhiko Asaka. Prince Asaka, says Wikipedia, was in bad odor with Emperor Hirohito and was sent to Nanking partly to redeem himself. He or his aide Lt.-Col. Isamu Cho, issued the order and Prince Asaka let it stand as the soldiers ran amok. Unfortunately, because Asaka was an imperial family member, he was made immune to prosecution afterwards, by General MacArthur‘s order. It was Asaka’s successor as commander, the elderly Gen. Iwane Matsui, who was executed for Nanking war crimes.

  IV. As for Heaven

 Chuan Lu is 40 years old and this is only his third feature film. His others include the much-admired prize-winner The Mountain Patrol: Kekexili, an action film (reportedly a scenically gorgeous one) about the illegal slaughter of antelopes in the Tibetan mountains. With City of Life and Death, though, Lu vaults to the top of an already ample list of great current Chinese film directors, headed by long-admired auteurs like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige. Lu’s talents seem immense: an extraordinary visual style, storytelling gifts of real genius, uncanny knacks for placing the camera and cutting, high skill with actors, and a profoundly humane view of history and people.

 If Lu never makes another film as good as City of Life and Death though, his place in both Chinese and world film history will still be assured. These days, we’re already discussing Academy Award possibilities, but any Oscar voter who passes up seeing this movie — because it’s in a foreign language, because it’s black and white, because they think it might be depressing, because it didn’t catch an American audience or for whatever reason — simply isn’t doing their job. Right now, if I were an Academy voter, this film would get my Best Picture vote, and certainly my nomination.

 City of Life and Death has an unexpected ending — but one that, after the tidal wave of suffering and death we see, is also almost exalting. That sense of exaltation doesn’t dull the impact of what we’ve seen before. Not at all. Is it sad or contradictory that great art, or a great movie, can be derived from such awful suffering and such atrocious inhumanity? Only if one denies the reality and the lasting impact of that very suffering and of that inhumanity. Only if one ignores the human, good qualities that let us try to transcend them and to heal them. War is Hell, and no film has ever shown it more clearly. But as for Heaven…

 (In Mandarin, Japanese, English and Shanghai, with English subtitles.)

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