City of Life and Death (CHINA/HONG KONG)
This harrowing film is to the war in the East as Schindler’s List was to the Holocaust. Like Spielberg’s opus, City of Life and Death is shot in magnificent black and white, which gives it a surreal dreamlike quality. It’s more than just an aesthetic choice too: the images and acts on screen are so brutal – women raped, men mowed down by machine guns and unarmed Chinese POWs coldly executed – that if it were in colour it would be intolerable.
Director/writer/producer Lu Chaan struggled for five years to get his retelling of the 1937-38 Nanjing massacre to the screen, and the result is relentless. The opening sequences depict the Japanese invasion with a Saving Private Ryan shaky-cam realism that doesn’t sacrifice spatial coherence, and from then on the atrocities only escalate.
After the Japanese capture of the city and the defeat of the Chinese defenders, Japanese commander Ida (Ryu Kohata), a psychopath even more banal and unhinged than Amon Goeth, presides over the mopping up operation. During this ‘Rape of Nanjing’, hundreds of thousands of POWs and civilians were murdered and thousands of women were raped. The largely fictional characters caught up in this horror include Mr. Tang (Fan Wei), a cuddly man with kewpie-doll features who acts as the assistant to real-life Nazi, John Rabes’ (John Paisley), and a thoughtful Japanese soldier, Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi), who is kind (at least, by comparison) to one of the hundreds of women selected to ‘comfort’ the Japanese victors.
The film has caused considerable controversy in China for the decision to forefront a Japanese soldier, and critics have debated whether it falls into the same ‘wish-fulfilment’ trap as Schindler’s List. Space prevents me from weighing in on that discussion – but suffice it to say, as a piece of cinema, City of Life and Death is an essential war film. Powerful, draining and provocative. [JB]