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Death by Numbers: Lu Chuan’s “City of Life and Death”

Death by Numbers: Lu Chuan's "City of Life and Death"

More than anything else in cinema, films about twentieth-century atrocity heighten our awareness of what’s ethically at stake in the representation and dramatization of suffering. Writers across a wide range of disciplines continue to discuss how such subject matter has held visual media—and indeed our entire image-saturated culture—in a moral and epistemological crisis. At times this strain of philosophizing has proven tiresome, particularly in the obvious ways it yokes a discourse of melodramatic extremes (with adjectives like “unfathomable” providing the routine description of the Holocaust) to film theory’s ever-shifting, ideologically charged attitudes toward realism. Still, the topic has the power to organize artists and critics along partisan lines, pitting self-conscious avant-garde practices against seamless traditional narrative, Godard against Spielberg. It’s no surprise then that Lu Chuan’s City of Life and Death has found itself embroiled in a controversy of increasingly global proportions. This big-budget epic about the Nanjing massacre has received a mixed reception not only in China, where its ambiguous political sympathies have periodically been attacked as unpatriotic, but also in the world of international cinephilia, where the atrocity film maintains its schizoid status as a prestige item, a bad object, and a testing ground for the capacities and inadequacies of art. Read the rest of Andrew Chan’s take on City of Life and Death.

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