War movies produced by commercial film industries have a tendency to show any given conflict not as it is or was, but as the side footing the bill for the film would like for it have been. The essential moral irony of war — that acts that would be considered revoltingly inhumane if committed in the name of the individual are not only sanctioned but celebrated when committed in the name of country –– has rarely been reflected on screen as honestly as in “City of Life and Death,” Lu Chuan’s stunning dramatic take on the 1937 Japanese invasion of Nanking, China. Unafraid to depict the blurring of moral boundaries on either side of the conflict, “Life and Death” manages to convey the total horror of the Japanese atrocities from the perspective of both perpetrators and victims, all with exceptional nuance, sensitivity and sadness.
In a three-day siege, the Japanese forces vanquished the bulk of the Chinese army and reduced the city, at that time the capital of China, to rubble. The women, children and Chinese soldiers who managed to survive were told they’d be safe if they remained within the confines of a refuge area run by a number of Westerners, including Nazi John Rabe (John Paisley) and American schoolteacher Minnie Vautrin (Beverly Peckous), both real figures who whose diaries and letters were read by actors in the recent documentary Nanking), and Rabe’s Chinese assistant Mr. Tang (Fan Wei). The safe zone did not remain safe for long: soon frustrated Japanese soldiers, given a taste of “comfort” by a visiting Japanese prostitute, begin regularly breaking in to the camp to gang rape women and girls. Rabe appeals to Hitler to intervene, and is told by the high command that it would be best to abandon the refuge camp, rather than sully Germany’s relationship with Japan. Mr. Tang is left to negotiate, and in the hopes of protecting his own wife and daughters, strikes a deal that will force 100 women from the camp to “volunteer” their services at a makeshift Japanese brothel.
“City” shifts its perspective back and forth between Tang’s struggle to keep the peace by playing “friend” to the Japanese, and the tour through hell of a young Japanese soldier named Kudokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi), who is overtaken by an inconvenient crisis of conscience after falling in love with prostitute Yuriko (Yuko Miyamota). Neither protagonist would be considered hero material in a traditional war film, and this is actually one of City’s key accomplishments: Lu’s meticulous depiction of the horrors of war is just set up for his exploration of the internal conflict of two men conscious of their own role in the unspeakable.
Sometimes Lu suddenly drops us in the middle of chaos unfolding so quickly there’s no way to find our bearings; other times he subjects us to unblinking procedurals that seem to take a moment and stretch it out the point of an endurance test. In one sequence, the heads of the camp are trying to negotiate with a few Japanese soldiers who have forced their way in, when occupators suddenly take the upper hand by swiftly murdering Tang’s daughter before his eyes. Another sequence slowly, carefully depicts the dispatching of thousands of prisoners of war via increasingly baroque methods: mass drownings, live burials, live en masse incinerations. The see-saw back and forth leads to a cumulative queasiness. The name of the game is to give the viewer a sense of the total dislocation and disorientation of war, a psychological grey zone that renders combatants and civilians caught in the crossfire equally incapable of real-world rationality. It seems as though this indoctrination process is complete by the time the Japanese soldiers break out into a surreally intense victory dance, but the scene’s controlled madness is still incredibly unnerving. Shot in silvery black and white with an epic sense of the frame, “City of Life and Death” has the feel of a lost post-War foreign classic, a masterwork implicating the viewer in the horrors of bearing witness.
This review was originally published during indieWIRE’s coverage of the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival. “City of Life and Death” opens in limited release this Wednesday, May 11th.