Fri, Oct 30, 2009 - Page 16 News List

FILM REVIEW: Imagining the unimaginable

‘City of Life and Death’ attempts to come to grips with the Nanjing Massacre



Seventy-two years after the Nanjing Massacre, the atrocity remains an unresolved trauma. China estimates a death toll of some 300,000, while Japan has yet to offer a formal written apology. In Chinese director Lu Chuan’s

(陸川) third feature City of Life and Death (南京!南京!), this sensitive subject is given a dramatic contour that fortunately dwells neither on excessive grief nor nationalistic indignation.

Shot in black and white, the artistically accomplished film takes a gut-wrenching look at the brutalities that took place during a six-week period starting in December 1937. Not afraid of portraying the blurring of moral boundaries on either side of the conflict, director Lu chooses to show the irrationality of war through a succession of events centering on a small number of characters, both Chinese and Japanese, examining humanity in its faults and virtues.

It is the winter of 1937. We follow a Japanese soldier and enter the devastated Chinese capital of Nanjing. The camera shifts to a Chinese resistance fighter (played by Liu Ye, 劉燁) and his men. Suddenly there is an exchange of machine gun fire and exploding grenades. We can hardly tell the Japanese soldiers from the Chinese fighters as the camera frantically switches perspective back and forth between the two sides who are shown as equals in terms of mettle and morality.

We then move deeper into the city with young Japanese soldier Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi). He and his fellow soldiers stumble upon a church where Chinese men, women and children have taken shelter. Kadokawa trembles, rushes out and screams for backup. His cries linger amid the devastated landscape.

The city is soon filled with corpses of executed Chinese soldiers and civilians. Those who manage to survive find shelter in a refuge area operated by a score of Westerners including the “good Nazi” John Rabe (John Paisley). Female teacher Jiang (Gao Yuanyuan, 高圓圓) helps to oversee the camp and is a heroic archetype willing to risk her life to save others. Rabe’s Chinese assistant Tang (Fan Wei, 范偉) plays the role of collaborator as he tries to save his family by striking a deal with the Japanese.

Meanwhile, the camera takes us on a journey through the conflicted Kadokawa’s own personal hell, as he is destroyed bit by bit by the inhumanity that surrounds him.

To visualize an atrocity rarely visited by cinema, director Lu blends gripping realism with a lyrical style that gives his imagery its haunting power. The elegant black-and-white cinematography by Cao Yu (曹郁) exudes a sense of sober detachment and spares the audience from experiencing the full effect of the violence and gore, which may have appeared intolerably monstrous if filmed in color.

However, as a dramatic reflection on a national trauma, the film is designed to imagine the unimaginable. The bulk of the film shows civilians and soldiers being herded into groups and massacred, women gang raped and children killed. The violence is portrayed in an almost matter-of-fact manner. It sickens and repels, but posits no deeper significance. Strangely enough, it is only when the director is done with the raping and killing that his cinematic poetry begins to surface, enthralling the audience with its rich complexity of composition and imagery.

With production designer Hao Yi’s (郝藝) sets of destroyed buildings and streets, Nanjing resembles an impressionistic limbo that reflects the psychological frenzy and spiritual void of its inhabitants. The Japanese soldiers look no better than their ghostly victims, tramping through the desolate landscape like phantoms.

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