Published Sep 15, 2009Filmed entirely in black and white, Lu Chuan's testament to the Rape of Nanking unapologetically reveals some of the horrors that occurred during the 1937 Japanese raid on China. Multiple perspectives connect and weave through the Chinese, Japanese and foreign aid experiences, as grief and chaos rule the trajectory of the film, itself concerned more with feeling and experience than storytelling.
It's a gruelling watch, truth be told, as little pleasure can be derived from watching repeated rape and slaughter, but it succeeds in its aim of presenting an unflinching look at historical injustice.
Touching on various characters and moments, the film starts with the initial battle, overlong with gunfire and explosions, as Nanking is decimated, moving on to a band of Chinese guerrilla fighters led by General Lu (Liu Ye). Jumping to the other side, we see atrocities through the eyes of an idealistic Japanese soldier named Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi), whose distain for the action of his colleagues is exacerbated by the treatment of a Japanese prostitute (Yuko Miyamoto).
Probably the most affecting segment of the film involves a young aid worker (Gao Yuanyuan), hiding in a German war-free zone, who risks her life to protect the innocent despite the inevitability of mass prostitution and exploitation.
Both the strength and weakness of City of Life and Death is its innate ability to bring the audience into the action, observing it from within, rather than framing each shot as a storyboard and narrative device. While we can engage with the latter monstrosities, watching women dress like men to avoid rape and their children being thrown out of third story windows, a lack of focus keeps specified identification and connections at bay.
Also problematic are the many extended sequences of battle and brutality that add nothing to the film, with almost 20 to 30 minutes of erroneous material bogging down what could have been a concise and affecting experience.
With so much arresting material proving the film's thesis, repeated blows only numb and dilute. What works, however, works well, making City a memorable experience overall. (Media Asia)