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Review: City of Life and Death

By  · Published on March 15th, 2010

The Center for Asian America Media presents the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF) this March 11th-21st. The SFIAAFF is the nation’s largest showcase for new Asian American and Asian films, annually presenting approximately 120 works in San Francisco, Berkeley and San Jose. Since 1982, the SFIAAFF has been an important launching point for Asian American independent filmmakers as well as a vital source for new Asian cinema. For more coverage, visit our SFIAAFF 2010 homepage.

City of Life and Death

Director: Chuan Lu

Country: China

“Shoot me.”

A powerful indictment of humanity, a testament to that same humanity, and an exploration of the banality of evil…

The temptation to close your eyes while watching City of Life and Death is strong. War films and the depiction of atrocities committed are nothing new, but they’re most often seen as small parts of a whole. This film forgoes that kindness in favor of making the atrocities committed in Nanking, China starting in the last month of 1937 the center piece. It’s not meant to be an entertaining or easy watch and it’s extremely difficult at times to endure, but as an accurate portrayal into one of mankind’s many unfavorable chapters it’s a painfully essential viewing experience.

The film starts with a city’s end. Nanking is falling to the Japanese forces even as ragtag groups of soldiers refuse to give up the fight. Their commanders have long since fled or surrendered, buildings have been turned to rubble, and the streets are filled with corpses, but Lu (Liu Ye) and his men stage a small and ultimately futile resistance. As the Japanese forces steamroll their way throughout the city we’re introduced to faces on all sides of the conflict. Tang (Fan Wei) works for a German businessman and that connection gives him a false sense of security for him and his family. Jiang (Gao Yuanyuan) was a teacher who now finds herself risking more than her life to save and protect the men, women, and children around her. And Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi) is a Japanese soldier immersed in and repulsed by the wanton violence, rape, and inhumanity committed by his fellow servicemen. We see what they see as a powerful but bored contingent of soldiers is left to rape and murder with impunity over a six-week period. It’s both brutal and beautiful, horrifying and honorable, and it will drain you emotionally. And it’s not to be missed.

It seems disingenuous to use the word beautiful in connection with City of Life and Death, but there’s no denying director Chuan Lu is a strongly visual talent. Shot in stark black and white, the film moves fluidly from vivid gun battles, to smoke-filled ruins, to faces on both sides of the conflict. These faces tell the story as well as any of the dialogue or other imagery, as we see them filled with pain, terror, joy, and often indifference. Chuan’s camera never backs down from the horrors that occurred in Nanking (but it never revels in the pain either), and the effect is enduring. We watch as groups of Chinese prisoners are led to death by way of bullets, fire, and asphyxiation. We move from room to room filled with the cries of young girls who’ve been raped and assaulted. One incredibly powerful scene finds the survivors huddling in a church and being told that the Japanese soldiers want to “borrow” one hundred of the women for a few weeks, and in exchange will provide food and coal for the remaining men, women, and children to make it through the freezing winter.

Aesthetics aside, scenes like the one in the church are probably the greatest reason to watch the film. Mankind’s capacity for murder and abuse is well documented, and City of Life and Death provides multiple examples of it, but we’re also witness to the unbelievably strong resilience of the human spirit and will to live. We see what people will do to each other but also what they will do for each other. Our capacities and compunctions are complicated elements that can’t be summarily dismissed as simply good or evil. What does it take for one man to commit an unspeakable act? The answer isn’t always sadistic malice. What if the act becomes the norm and just as commonplace as having rice for dinner or cleaning your gun in the afternoon? Can boredom, hunger, and authoritarian pressures lead to a numbing of the conscience? The answer may provide an unfortunate awakening.

“Life is more difficult than death,” says one character towards the end of the film, and it’s a theme the movie makes clear throughout its running time. You can’t help but hope for a hero figure to rise up, gun in hand, and start taking bloody revenge on the Japanese for the atrocities they’ve committed, but this isn’t an exercise in cathartic fantasy. This is reality. War by its very definition finds humanity at its worst, but amid the tyranny and death there is a hope that our good can also shine through. That light of courage and empathy may sometimes appear drowned out by the darkness of cruelty and fear, but we have to believe that it never stops shining. City of Life and Death is testament to that wish. To that hope. And to that fact.

City of Life and Death is playing WED 03/17 9:15pm at the Sundance Kabuki 5 and FRI 03/19 9:10pm at the Pacific Film Archive

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.