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CITY OF LIFE AND DEATH (NANJING! NANJING!)(director/writer: Lu Chuan; cinematographer: Cao Yu; editor: Yun Teng; music: Liu Tong; cast: Ye Liu (Lu Jianxiong), Yuanyuan Gao (Miss Jiang), Hideo Nakaizumi (Kadokawa), Wei Fan (Mr. Tang), Yiyan Jiang (Xiao Jiang), Ryu Kohata (Osama Ida), Bin Liu (Xiaodouzi), John Paisley (John Rabe), Beverly Peckous (Minnie Vautrin), Lan Qin (Mrs. Tang), Sam Voutas (Durdin), Yao Di (Tang Xiaomei), Zhao Yisui (Shunzi), Lu Jianxiong (Ye Liu), Yuko Miyamoto (Yuriko); Runtime: 135; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Han Sanoing/Qin Hong/Zhou Li/John Chong/Andy Zhang; Mega Atar Video; 2009-Hong Kong/China-in Mandarin and English, with English subtitles)
“Depicts some of the most gruesome images ever put on film.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

If you have the stomach for it, this remarkable film on the Rape of Nanking incident during the Second World War, shot in a luminous black-and-white, is an unforgettable and telling movie experience that tells in its own uncompromising way the true story of a notorious war crime (all but forgotten today). It took place over a six-week occupation period, from late 1937 to early 1938, when the Japanese in three days captured the then Chinese capital of Nanking (now known as Nanjing) and committed untold atrocities during their occupation.

The talented young Chinese filmmaker Lu Chuan (“Mountain Patrol”/”The Missing Gun”) depicts some of the most gruesome images ever put on film. It’s done in such fine detail and with such solid research, that it could well serve as an historical record (even if it mixes real characters with fictional ones), ensuring that the unspeakable dastardly incident will not be forgotten by mankind. Its haunting mood gets to you, as its tale of horrors is hard to shake long after viewing the movie. Despite not knowing for sure the exact number of causalities (which remains in dispute) and the reliability of eye-witness accounts, Chuan gives you a good idea of the scope of the war crimes. Many in Japan admit to their wrong-doings, but the Japanese government has yet to accept responsibility or even apologize. Some Japanese right-wing factions have the audacity to claim the Nanking “Incident” remains a fabrication concocted by the Chinese for their own political purposes. You can write those folks off as being just as pernicious as the Holocaust deniers.

Shot on large sets, Chuan assuredly recreates the bomb-blasted city in ruins as a place in hell and has cast thousands in the production. Chuan’s film takes off after the city is quickly captured, as the ruthless occupation begins and the filmmaker follows both the occupiers and the captives with an equal sensitivity (which gives this film a good balance, a lyrical bounce and makes it different from many big-budget war films by not being preachy, didactic, overly concerned with the battle scenes or judgmental). In an effort to show that all sides are victims in war, Chuan turns his attention to several characters–indicating there are villains and heroes on both sides.

The ensuing occupation, after the Chinese army fled in retreat, saw the Japanese military round up those left behind and randomly shoot thousands of Chinese soldiers and civilians, killing many who were bound, burying in mass graves those still alive, committing the systemic massive rape (even of the children), and looting. Meanwhile the populace took refuge in a designated international ‘safe zone’ in the diplomatic quarter. This was arranged by a German businessman John Rabe (John Paisley), a complex man who served Hitler yet found a way to probably rescue over 100,000 Chinese lives by helping the refugees in practical ways. Rabe is based on a real character, almost completely forgotten today.

Others featured are an American schoolteacher (Beverl Peckous), who helped Rabe deal with the female population; Rabe’s middle-class Chinese secretary Mr Tang (Wei Fan), who tries to do anything he can to protect his family and gets stuck making a terrible bargain as a collaborator; Xiao Jiang (Yiyan Jiang) is a prostitute, who in this dire situation finds herself surprisingly willing to sacrifice herself for others; Miss Jiang (Yuanyuan Gao) is a missionary teacher who now learns what her mission really is and pays the piper; Lu Jianxiong (Ye Liu) is the resistance leader and is the film’s only unblemished hero; the moon-faced unimportant child Xiaodouzi (Bin Liu), always wandering around, somehow survives and is symbolic of the ordinary Chinese who lived to tell the world about their ordeal. While the human face from the Japanese viewpoint is the well-educated and sensitive young soldier Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi), who grieves that he accidentally kills some Chinese women during the surrender. Kadokawa later falls in love with the Chinese woman (Yuko Miyamoto) sent to him as the ‘comfort woman’ and who tenderly helped the frightened soldier lose his virginity and thoughts of the enemy as worthless inferiors.

As soon as one becomes familiar with a character introduced, they usually are brutally killed off.

This excellent film passed through the hands of the Red censors, though not without causing some public controversy. Chuan received many death threats for his refusal not to demonize the Japanese.

That “City” is not a pleasant film and it’s not easy to respond to so much brutality and bleakness, is certainly the way I feel. Nevertheless that does not alter my opinion that this is an essential film, one not to be missed, that should be appreciated for how humanistic it could be despite its barbarian subject matter.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”