Saturday, May 08, 2010

Review - City of Life and Death (Nanjing! Nanjing!)

Lu Chuan's City of Life and Death is a remarkable film that confronts head-on the brutal human cost of warfare. Its subject is the 'Rape of Nanking', one of the most notorious episodes of the Second World War, in which Japanese soldiers, having seized control of the former Chinese capital, slaughtered hundreds of thousands of the city's inhabitants and raped thousands of its women. The actual death toll has long been disputed, but the horror of what took place during the six-week occupation is inarguable, and Lu has set himself a herculean task in attempting to portray this horror on screen. As difficult as it may be, the director has met this challenge with artistry and grace, producing a vivid and often overwhelming epic that is perhaps the most powerful cinematic depiction of wartime atrocities since Elem Klimov's Come and See.

Filming in stark black-and-white, Lu structures his film roughly in two segments, with a large chunk of the film's opening half depicting the Japanese invasion of Nanking. He places us squarely in the crossfire as the city – brought to life through the film's outstanding production design – is blown to smithereens around us. It is chaotic and disorienting, and it feels utterly authentic, with the three-day siege unfolding as a relentless assault on the audience's senses. Lu directs this long battle sequence with astonishing confidence, orchestrating the explosive action with his dynamic camerawork and superb staging. He manages the trick of putting us in the midst of the conflict while simultaneously offering us a panoramic view of what took place, and this approach, of letting us share in the intimate experiences of his characters while never losing sight of the bigger picture, is one he utilises throughout the film.

There are a few key characters that Lu frequently focuses on in order to give his film a human resonance and to give us something to cling onto as we negotiate our way through the carnage. Some of these are real figures, such as John Rabe (John Paisley), the German businessman who attempted to protect the Chinese by establishing a 'safe zone' within the city, and American schoolteacher Minnie Vautrin (Beverly Peckous) who worked with Rabe to aid the city's female population. Alongside them stands Rabe's Chinese assistant Tang (Wei fan), who hopes that his status as a member of Rabe's inner circle will protect him and his family from the marauding Japanese. But Lu doesn't just give us a nationalistic view of events in City of Life and Death, and his decision to give balance to the Japanese characters has caused controversy in China. The Japanese viewpoint falls on Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi), a young soldier horrified by his own actions, and Yuriko (Yuko Miyamoto), the 'comfort woman' he loses his virginity to and subsequently falls in love with.

Lu shifts his narrative between these characters, allowing us to experience events from a variety of perspectives. He casts nobody as the hero and nobody as the villain; they are simply a group of humans being forced to endure terrible pressures, and to make unbearable choices. One of these choices is the decision to ask one hundred of the Nanking women to 'volunteer' themselves as prostitutes for the Japanese, in the hope of preventing further bloodshed, and the sight of these women lining up to be raped is a haunting and horrible one. City of Life and Death is full of terrible images, and one particular moment of casual barbarism stunned me when I watched the film, and remains seared into my memory now. Nothing in the film feels gratuitous, though. Lu is never more explicit than he needs to be when showing us the violent acts that took place in Nanking, and he views them with a clinical, objective eye. The flow of violence and brutality that City of Life and Death consists of is often hard to take, but while we might find it difficult to watch at times, it's also impossible to look away.

And we shouldn't look away. City of Life and Death, like all truly great war films, asks us to examine the true nature of war and to face the depths that mankind is capable of plunging in these times. With its portrayal of large-scale massacre and its black-and-white aesthetic, the film will surely draw comparisons with Schindler's List, and the comparison is apt. Like Spielberg, Lu finds a balance between making a film that shocks us with its honest account of the event, while finding a human centre that helps us to endure the horror. City of Life and Death simply asks us to bear witness, and it already feels like a classic that will continue to stun, impress and move audiences for years to come.