The sorrow and the pity: City of Life and Death ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 9, 2011)

One of the lighter moments in City of Life and Death

 After watching Chuan Lu’s City of Life and Death, “war is hell” feels like an understatement. Set during the “second” Sino-Japanese War,  this historical drama  focuses on the 1937 “Rape of Nanking” (an estimated 200,000-300,000 residents were slaughtered by Japanese soldiers over six weeks ). The horrors recounted here burrow into your psyche and bivouac like an occupying army.

Shot in stark black and white, the film  hearkens to the classic era of neorealist war dramas like de Sica’s Two Women and Rossellini’s Open City. Lu infuses his narrative with a Kurosawa-like humanism, taking a relatively non-didactic approach. Initially, we get the invaders-eye view, primarily through the personal experiences of a Japanese soldier named Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi).

As they enter the ruins of the heavily bombarded city, Kadokawa and fellow members of his small patrol seem frightened and confused, like they are not quite sure what their next order of business is. They meet pockets of resistance from the tattered remnants of the outgunned Chinese defensive forces, who have obviously taken heavy casualties.

It’s not long before most remaining Chinese soldiers have been captured and rounded up. In the first of many horrifying atrocities reenacted in the film, they are marched en mass to the beach, where they are unceremoniously mowed down (so much for that whole Geneva Convention thing).

Out of this pile of carnage crawls a survivor, young Xiaodouzi (Bin Liu), a prepubescent soldier who looks like a cherub that has stumbled into the pits of Hell. His (true) story is an amazing one. He finds his way into the “safety zone” of the city-which brings us to the conundrum of this tale. If I told you that the most compassionate character in this film is a Nazi, would you believe me? All I have to do is tell the truth, because John Rabe (John Paisley) was a real person.

A German businessman, he was a key organizer in a group of foreigners who negotiated with the Japanese for the Safety Zone, which ended up saving thousands of Chinese (shades of Oskar Schindler). Rabe’s assistant, Mr. Tang (Wei Fan), who is bilingual in Japanese, plays a huge part in this endeavor, as does Mrs. Tang (Lan Qin).

Tang cultivates an uneasy “friendship” with Kadokawa’s mercurial commanding officer, Ida (Ryu Kohata), a textbook sociopath. Mr. Tang learns that dealing with the devil is  tenuous at best  (Ida’s cold-blooded betrayal is beyond reprehension-and one of the more shocking moments in a film that is rife with them).

But Ida outdoes even himself when he demands that Rabe surrender 100 female “volunteers” from the Safety Zone to be requisitioned as “comfort women” for the Japanese troops. In an emotionally shattering scene, women slowly begin raising their hands, seeming to reach a mutual grim epiphany as they look around the room at each other and realize that this may be the only way to ensure that their children survive the nightmare (heart-wrenching as that scene is, it pales in comparison to the historical record-there were an estimated 20,000 rape victims, from toddler age to grandmothers).

Interestingly, the most compelling character is Kadokawa, who is the “conscience” of the story (the director has taken flak in his native China for portraying a Japanese soldier in a sympathetic light). Granted-through association  he is complicit, yet he is still human. He’s conflicted; at times visibly appalled and repelled by what he is witnessing. He doesn’t refuse orders (until the crucial denouement) but in a way he is an avatar for the collective guilt all humans bear as a species perennially bent on inflicting pain and suffering on itself.

In one extraordinarily staged sequence, a contingent of Japanese soldiers conducts a traditional victory dance through the city. Keep an eye on Kadokawa’s face. He is chanting along with the other soldiers, but as his eyes meet those of the dazed and expressionless Chinese onlookers, it becomes clear that as far as his soul and humanity are concerned, this is a Pyrrhic victory at best.

I can’t say that I “enjoyed” such a relentlessly grim and depressing 133 minutes. That said, City of Life and Death is one of the best films I’ve seen this year. It is intense (and brutal), but masterfully made and well-acted. It also examines a chapter of 20th century history that has been largely overlooked by film makers.

The fact that the Chinese and Japanese governments remain at loggerheads over respective “official” accounts of those horrific six weeks back in 1937 demonstrates that this is not an obscure incident that should just be relegated to the dustbins of history. In fact…no “incident” of this nature should just be relegated to the dustbins of history.

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