SIFF, Week One: City of Life and Death (China, 2009, 129 mins)

In the book The Rape of Nanking, the late Iris Chang lamented the fact that Hollywood had not made a single film about this event, one of the worst atrocities of World War II, even though it was prime material for a movie ala Schindler’s List.  Hollywood has still not made a film on this subject, but Chinese director Chuan Lu has, even basing one of the characters in the film on the late writer.

City of Life and Death (titled Nanjing! Nanjing! in China) begins with the words, “Dedicated to the 300,000 victims of the Rape of Nanking.”  It ends with laughter.  Postcards, acting as intertitles, begin the movie with news about the Japanese advance into China toward Nanking (or Nanjing, depending on whether or not you subscribe to the Cantonese or Mandarin versions of the name, respectively).  We then view the assault on the city through the eyes of Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi), a Japanese soldier.  While looking for Chinese soldiers in the ruined city, the Japanese run into John Rabe (John Paisley) and his secretary, Mr. Tang (Wei Fan), who try to tell them that they are in the Safety Zone, where only refugees dwell.  Kadokawa is the only one who speaks any English, but his English is terrible, and the Japanese do not understand what Rabe is trying to tell them.

They enter a church with thousands of Chinese people inside.  Slowly, the Chinese people raise their hands.  Many of them are holding guns.  Kadokawa is sent for reinforcements.  While the Japanese soldiers are taking the Chinese men away, believing them to be soldiers (which they may or may not be), Kadokawa fires his gun.  The bullet pierces a confessional booth.  The door opens, and several bodies fall out.  All dead.  He tries to apologize, saying it was an accident.  The atrocities which occur later in the film, however, are no accident.

Some of these atrocities come right out of the book, The Rape of Nanking.  For example, all remaining Chinese soldiers are rounded up by the Japanese, including some holdouts that give them a good fight.  By the end of the first week, in the first truly disturbing images in the film, they are all executed.  Many are mowed down by machine guns.  Others are ordered to march to the sea, then fired upon at the water’s edge.  Others are bayoneted.  Still others are buried alive, the Japanese soldiers stomping the dirt with their feet in order to pack it in tightly around the victims.  Miraculously, two survive (including a boy named Xiaodouzi, played by Bin Liu) and escape to the Safety Zone.

Around this point in the film, the side speakers starting kicking out at regular intervals.  While watching I Am Love the night before, one reel had failed to thread through the machine properly (right at the beginning of the long drive to Antonio’s garden), and the lights had come on briefly until the problem was fixed.  Unfortunately, the problem was never fully fixed for this film, and while the sound never completely cut out, it did lessen the experience.  And this was after the lights had gone up right after the previews for several minutes, which meant that another possible problem had been detected before the movie even started.

Back to the film.  After the POWs are executed, Japanese soldiers enter the Safety Zone and start raping women.  When confronted by Rabe during the first rape scene, the officer in charge playfully slaps the two men with him, asking Rabe if either man was to blame.  He then pulls up his pants (which are below screen) and leaves.  Later on, two Japanese soldiers steal the Chinese flag from inside the compound and ride away on bicycles.  When the women follow them outside the gates, there are many more soldiers waiting for them.

“We tricked you!” they say, laughing.  The women cry out, knowing what their fate will be.

From that point on, the women are ordered to remove their nail polish, cut their hair short, and wear men’s clothing.  Some refuse.  Their hair is cut, anyway.  One who does not lives to regret it.

More rapes occur.  Kadokawa falls in love with a comfort woman and wants to marry her (I believe the name she gives herself is Yumiko).  Like the girl with the red coat in Schindler’s List, she becomes symbolic of the horrors that comfort women faced.  Notice her expression when Kadokawa brings her sweets as gifts.  How little nourishment must she get, how few pleasures in life much she receive, to be reduced to a happy child, merely by sucking on a piece of candy.

And then, because Mr. Tang is tricked into signing a document stating that there are armed Chinese soldiers hiding inside the Safety Zone (all the soldiers are wounded and being treated inside the hospital), Japanese soldiers are ordered to enter the Safety Zone, kill the soldiers in the hospital, and round up any men they believe to be Chinese soldiers.

Though we watch the atrocities from different viewpoints, it’s interesting that we begin and end with Kadokawa’s.  We also share the viewpoints of Mr. Tang, Mrs. Tang (Lan Quin), her sister Xiaomei Tang (Di Yao), Miss Jiang (Yuanyuan Gao), and Minnie Vautrin (Beverly Peckous).  In this way, the director forces us to focus on the atrocities from different viewpoints, rather than on the individual saviors and aggressors.

Even though this film doesn’t show the worst of the atrocities, they’re still enough to cause gasps from the audience.  One of the most effective methods that the director employs, besides deciding to shoot the film entirely in black and white, is his use of fade-outs, as if even the camera can’t bear to watch the horrors that are being committed.  In addition, he uses handheld cameras and has the cameras follow people, rather than showing them from the front, giving the film the feel of a documentary.

I also must applaud the cinematographer and everyone involved in designing the set.  The city looks like it came right out of WWII photos, with rubble, bodies, and more ominous signs of the crimes to come.  People tied to poles, dead.  Heads hanging from chains.  The framing, whether in long or medium shots, gives a sense of depth, and places the audience squarely in the ruined city.  This is a big screen movie if there ever was one.

I mentioned that the director wants us to focus on the atrocities, not the individuals, yet that is not entirely true.  We see heroic acts from many of the characters in the film.  A Chinese soldier covering the eyes of Xiaodouzi before the remaining POWs are about to be shot.  Mr. Tang letting a Chinese officer go with John Rabe as his personal secretary instead of himself, knowing that he will probably be killed for staying behind.  Miss Jiang pretending that two different men are her husband in order to save them from their deaths, even though she knows she will be killed if the deception is discovered.  And finally, the women who raise their hands in the church after hearing that the Japanese will provide food, water, and electricity to the rest of the Safety Zone…in exchange for 100 comfort women.  While the film is dedicated to the victims, it should also be dedicated to these women, these women who sacrificed their bodies, their most prized possessions, so that others could live.

I have a few caveats with the film.  The ending was a little hard to follow (very different from the rest of the film), and no explanation was given as to why John Rabe did not go to Germany when he was ordered to go (and said he must go).  Also, I became confused, at times, as to whether I was watching Kadokawa or his more bloodthirsty commander.  But then came the credit sequence.  At the beginning of this sequence, black and white photos of the actors who played each role, along with their characters’ birth and death dates, were shown on the screen.  When it got to the last person, what it said on the screen made me take a deep breath.  I thought I had survived the movie unscathed by its intensity.  I was wrong.  The deep breaths continued for another half-an-hour.

And that’s why, on my ballot, I gave this movie a five out of five.

Click here for Grace Wang’s excellent review of the film.

The Neptune Theatre, where I saw City of Life and Death (photo taken after the movie was over)

5 thoughts on “SIFF, Week One: City of Life and Death (China, 2009, 129 mins)

  1. What a detailed review! I saw the movie some time back. I would call it informative more than anything else. It hardly makes the impression like Schindler's List, seen much much earlier.

  2. True, but that's because Spielberg focused on Oskar Schindler, while Lu is more interested in giving us an overview of what happened through the eyes of a few–like a documentary (another movie, John Rabe, focuses exclusively on "the Oskar Schindler of Nanking," but I have yet to see that film). What I find interesting is how we end up empathizing with so many characters in the movie, anyway, despite the fact that the story never focuses exclusively on any of them for more than ten minutes at a time (excluding Mr. Tang and Kadokawa, who are given more screen time).

  3. Many thanks for this synopsis,i've heard and read alot about this movie,and i've got a copy of Iris Chang's book to read.

  4. The book is more detailed in the atrocities committed. If you read the book first, it will help you recognize more of the characters in the movie (except for the fictional ones).

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