From the Landmark Kendall Sq. Theater, Cambridge, MA on Thursday June 9, 2011.
Written & Directed by Chuan Lu, starring Ye Liu, Yuanyuan Gao, Wei Fan, Hideo Nakaizumi and John Paisley, featuring cinematography by Yu Cao.
Whether as a lunchtime gathering between coworkers, or online as a movie blog or social media community, The Lunch Movie’s raison d’être is to celebrate the good stuff. There are too many good and great movies out there to bother writing negatively about movies that do not spark my enthusiasm. I make an effort to resist generic hyperbole of the “best” or “worst” variety. Once the provenance of know-it-all nerds, like THE SIMPSONS’ Comic Book Guy, these words have been made nearly redundant by critics more adept at synopsizing than analysis. Nonetheless CITY OF LIFE & DEATH stands apart even among a list of movies I love. It is the most profoundly haunting war movie I’ve encountered since APOCALYPSE NOW.
CITY OF LIFE & DEATH was shot in color and printed in black & white suggesting, at first glance, news reels of the era similar to Movietone news. The first hour details the Japanese invasion of Nanking in 1937 where thousands of Chinese soldiers were quickly cut down while fighting to hold their nation’s capital. That initial newsreel sense of the battle sequences expands rapidly to an awareness of extraordinary artistry. We’ve seen this more in still photography from war correspondents than we have in motion pictures. Composition within each frame is as strikingly beautiful as the subject matter is unnerving. “Epic” is a word that has become as squandered as “best” or “worst.” The massive scope of these street-to-street battles, on the scale of A BRIDGE TOO FAR and the finale of FULL METAL JACKET, should serve as a reminder of the true definition of “epic.”
As imposing as this widescreen doomscape is Chuan balances an intimacy with his characters, reminiscent of ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, with the urgency of hand-held vérité style as claustrophobic as THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS. In the crush of battle we rarely catch the names of the combatants with whom we become acquainted. Still they become familiar to us even amid the chaos. The few detractors I’ve come across find only the pace of this film to complain about. Everyone acknowledges the breathtaking photography, and compelling performances, but some find certain parts of the story too slow. It is in these quieter moments that the plight of the characters is seared into your soul. There is very little music here, just the dull tap of bullets and hollow thunder of grenades, followed by pin-drop silence. You may find yourself catching your breath along with the soldiers for fear that breathing too deeply could give away their position. The sincere humanity imbued in the Chinese defenders and even some within the Japanese assault, soldiers we may know only briefly before they are killed, draws us ever deeply into this tragic story. The audience is placed in a position similar to the participants by the story’s ensemble structure; any character we embrace could die at any moment, regardless or even in spite of our hope that they may emerge as the protagonist.
The second hour, spanning early 1938 after Nanking has fallen, is where CITY OF LIFE & DEATH may become too much to bear even for those who consider themselves aficionados of war films. Perhaps even more than the Nazi Holocaust or the Armenian Genocide, Nanking is notorious for an unfathomable number of rapes perpetrated within the first few months of the siege. The film manages to be as harrowing for its depiction of broken and battered women, attempting to comfort each other after being assaulted, as it would have been had it lingered in lurid detail of the crimes as they were committed. Yuanyuan Gao plays Miss Jiang, a character inspired by Iris Chang, whose book “The Rape of Nanking” is among the better known accounts of this battle to have been translated into English. Miss Jiang stands, often alone, as the last line of defense against sexual aggression. She tries to warn Chinese women how to avoid drawing the attention of Japanese soldiers. She is tasked with negotiating which women and children will be spared and at what cost. Through Miss Jiang we experience how each woman was forced to sell pieces of her soul for one more day breathing, with only so many pieces to her soul to spare, and so many days she can survive these conditions.
John Paisley plays John Rabe, a true life German businessman, who helped establish the Nanking Safety Zone to protect civilians from Japanese soldiers. In the film Rabe works with Miss Jiang, as well as his own Chinese assistant Mr. Tang (Wei Fan), to protect his workers and their families. John Rabe has been called The Schindler of China; that coupled with this being a black & white film has drawn inevitable and somewhat appropriate comparisons to SCHINDLER’S LIST. Rabe remains an important secondary character, but Miss Jiang and Mr. Tang emerge as the civilian opponents to the invading army, and it is through their steps and missteps that a traditional tale of redemption is carved from all this random sorrow.
The brutal majority within the Japanese forces is embodied by Captain Durdin (Sam Voutas) while Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi) represents the dwindling core of Japanese soldiers who feel their souls diminished with every day they occupy Nanking. Most of the Japanese soldiers are seen as happy to rape and pillage and wipe the Chinese off the face of the earth. Kadokawa stands for a few who realize that they will never be able to return home and think of themselves as human.
Much as I admire CITY OF LIFE & DEATH for having the spirit to be artistically ambitious, and the technical skill to realize those ambitions, it gives me hope on a more practical level as well. Let’s face it, the average American viewer thinks Karate movies and Kung Fu movies are the same thing, and wouldn’t be able to spot the samurai movie between 13 ASSASSINS and RED CLIFF. Euro-centric American audiences seldom recognize that the history and culture of China and Japan are as disparate as Italy and Germany. While pundits like Donald Trump and Lou Dobbs sound alarms about China, younger characters in this movie remind us that there are many Chinese still living who remember Nanking, or who lost family there. The perseverance and determination of Miss Jiang, Mr. Tang and legions of nameless soldiers reveal a Chinese national character that might be less concerned with Soviet style world domination and more concerned with making sure no one is ever again able to threaten them as one neighbor had done. In the end whether you are Chinese or Japanese, Italian or German, or any hyphenate American you will be humbled by this story’s answer to the question “What price survival?”
I thoroughly understand how excessive it sounds to place a recent film in the pantheon with not only the most legendary war films but some of the more significant achievements in the film medium. This is no exaggeration. CITY OF LIFE & DEATH gave me that sense, which occurs a handful of times per decade, that I was experiencing something that would alter my perception regarding cinema and war and the value of life itself. It accomplished this within the first act.