Most war movies are considered to be, by nature, anti-war. Lu Chuan’s “City of Life and Death” feels more anti-human, as its balanced depiction of the Nanking Massacre is so dauntingly depressing that I almost don’t want to recommend it. Were it not also a remarkable technical achievement of epic filmmaking, I might actually dissuade you. But, I mean, more blockbusterized tragedies like “Pearl Harbor” and “Titanic” are also marvels of craftsmanship, in their own digitally spectacle-ized ways (this is not to say they’re great movies as a result). And “City” doesn’t shy away from action sequences as thrilling/harrowing as parts of “Saving Private Ryan.” However, this film doesn’t romanticize so much, or really at all, and while it has minor elements of hopefulness in the end — thematically you might be surprised it doesn’t end with a montage of subsequent holocausts, genocides and atomic bombs dropping (something akin to the terrible bit concluding “The Way Back,” for instance) — I think this quote from Lu from the film’s production notes speak to what you can expect with his film’s tone:
“I found the basic truth that a massacre is not the special talent of the Japanese people. It’s a talent of human beings, you know? All kinds of people kill all kinds of people. That devil is always in everyone’s heart, so as human beings we need to be very careful.”
Maybe I’m looking at the film-glass half empty, but that statement and the movie it accompanies are really horrifying. And I watch a lot of documentaries, which as a whole often depresses me and keeps me cynical enough. Lu does say the above before claiming it is war that transforms people into animals and that the Japanese in Nanking were “not human beings.” Perhaps he does think more optimistically and this is why he aimed for something that equally humanizes and vilifies both sides of the conflict. Certainly the greatest horrors are done by the Japanese, including the slaughtering, the executing, the raping, the throwing of children out windows — scene after scene filled with atrocities so unbelievable it almost helps arguments of those Japanese claiming the massacre has been exaggerated by the Chinese for propaganda. But I’ve also seen documentary photographs that lead me to believe it was that bad. And I know what people can do and have done in other despicable moments in history.
If anything, “City” mostly makes me feel terrible — in general — but specifically terrible about enjoying war movies in the past. Maybe that’s part of the point. Others may call the film a masterpiece or brilliant, but whatever; just drop in a familiar American actor for Western-gateway accessibility and shoot in color and it’s not much different from a lot of other war films (there’s even a tragic love story here), only without the parts that make us feel good about ourselves in the end. And the black and white cinematography may give it the old kind of “realist” look, but really color would probably make for an even more shockingly authentic depiction. Gratuitous yet true. This isn’t so much criticisms against the film but the way it’s received. It’s a fine work of cinema, just hard to say likable or even necessary. It might be the most respectably accomplished production of any of the Nanking Massacre movies (of which there are plenty, including a doc starring Woody Harrelson and Stephen Dorff and a German film featuring Steve Buscemi, either of which would seemingly be more appealing to American audiences). Yet the historically interested might settle on something even less dramatized than this. Those of you into bleak portraits of humanity’s lowest depths will “love” it.
“City of Life and Death” is now on DVD and Blu-ray.
Recommended If You Like: “Schindler’s List”, “Nanking”, “Turtles Can Fly” (aka the saddest movie I’ve ever seen in my life)