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September 2010

City Of Life And Death

cast: Gao Yuanyuan, Ye Liu, Wei Fan, Yuan Goa, and Yiyan Jiang

director: Chuan Lu

129 minutes (15) 2009
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
High Fliers DVD Region 2 retail
[released 27 September]

RATING: 6/10
review by Jim Steel

City Of Life And Death

Many British people occasionally get incensed when some Americans state that the Second World War started in 1941. The Russians, of course, talk about the Great Patriotic War which started with the German invasion of the Soviet Union, again in 1941, which is, I suppose, one way of avoiding culpability for their part as German allies in the invasion of Poland. I personally get annoyed when I think that the one major western historian who agrees with me on a starting date of 1937 just happens to be Niall Fergusson. This was when Japan launched their invasion of China. Why Fergusson, and not E.J. Hobsbawm? Life is extremely unfair.

This all does have relevance to the film in question if you'll bear with me. City Of Life And Death is - not the story, exactly - but the experience of the infamous rape of Nanking. The first half hour of the film deals with the capture of the city and is typical urban warfare. After that director Chuan Lu leads viewers into Hades with something that presses the same emotional buttons as Brugel or the Chapman brothers' Hell. It's horribly fascinating, but there's little personal connection to any of the characters as the viewpoint swings around the streets.

The monochrome cinematography seems to be attempting two different things and fails for two slightly different reasons. The replication of contemporary sources (aided at times by a slight over-exposure in the film stock) ironically feels dated to eyes that are becoming used to the re-discovery of old colour stock and the colourisation of black and white footage. The echoing of Shindler's List (even down to the identification of one of the victims on a barrow through something that she was wearing) merely feels derivative and heavy-handed.

It is obvious that many eyewitness reports have been utilised here. Paul Rabe (John Paisley), the famous 'Good Nazi' of Nanking features prominently, although here he is shown as a weary and ineffectual man. When he is to be transferred from the city it is stated that it is because his efforts to save the Chinese people in the international compound are embarrassing Hitler and his relationship with the Japanese government. Well, maybe. However, what the film doesn't mention is that, in 1937, Nazi Germany was supplying the Nationalist Chinese forces with equipment and training specifically to fight the Japanese. This, one feels, would have been viewed as compromising the comparison with the Holocaust.

The irony is that the atrocities appear to have been rendered accurately and there is no need for dialectical embellishment on the part of the director. The infamous bayonet practice on bound prisoners, for example, really happened pretty much as it is portrayed. The same can be said for the rest of the horrors: heads hung from lampposts; children murdered; women raped and then thrown to their deaths from windows. It's harrowing stuff and it is rendered in such a forceful manner that even Mel Gibson would blush at the audacity of it all.

Bizarrely, there are moments of strange beauty amongst all of this. A group of prisoners is mown down like a field of corn in a manner that recalls the way Eisenstein used massed crowds; a platoon of Japanese soldiers move like a machine through a ruined cityscape; the eerie official Japanese victory celebrations, watched in silence by some of the survivors.

All of the Chinese, it must be said, end up as courageous and stoical if they can survive beyond their first minute on the screen. Many start that way while others grow in stature as the film progresses. Rabe's multilingual secretary, Mr Tang (Wei Fan), a plump, bourgeois family man, thinks that he can deal with the Japanese as if they were rational creatures and he ends up paying a horrifying price. He, of course, evolves into a heroic figure who wins redemption. The Japanese, it goes without saying, are mostly ciphers, happy and playful when on their own, cruel and evil when in the company of their Chinese victims. One exception is Lieutenant Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi), a naf with a conscience, who has several purposes in the film.

One is to destroy any possibility of excuses of innocence on the part of the Japanese; they knew what they were doing was wrong but most just didn't care. Another was to provide Chuan with an opportunity to show atrocities that a Chinese viewpoint could not expose. Lieutenant Jiang falls in love with one of a new intake of comfort women (prostitutes supplied, frequently under duress, by the military for their troops) who is gentle and considerate with him. However, on a later visit he is shocked to find that she has become little more than a brutalised robot and has no memory of him.

So there you have it: the brave, stoical Chinese do their best under hellish circumstances and the audience has the comfort of knowing that they will triumph in the end after many years of struggle. Audiences outside China may be led to imagine that there was a pleasant and peaceful country there before the Japanese invasion, which is disingenuous to say the least.

What isn't mentioned is that China had already been wracked by civil war for a decade previous to this and had also been blighted by brutal regional warlords. One feels that there were hopes that this film, with all of its familiar western trappings, would do well outside of the motherland, although it probably didn't fill too many seats in downtown Kyoto.

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