Set in Nanjing in 1937, shortly after the Imperial Japanese Army had captured the Chinese capital. During a period of several weeks, tens of thousands of Chinese soldiers and civilians were killed. The film tells the story of several figures, both historical and fictional, including John Rabe, a Nazi businessman who would ultimately save thousands of Chinese civilians.
SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: An assured cinematic – and partially fictionalised – depiction of 1937's The Rape of Nanking, one of the most notorious military massacres of the 20th century, City of Life and Death is a balanced and considered achievement that awes as art even as it moves as drama and horrifies as history. Chinese director Lu Chuan, whose second film Kekexili: Mountain Patrol, was backed by Japanese corporation Sony, was in a unique position to tackle the historical event which remains a lightning rod of ill-feeling between China and Japan. The film won prizes for best directing and best cinematography at the 2009 Asia Pacific Screen Awards.
Shot in stunning, widescreen black and white by Yu Cao, the film begins with a battle-weary Japanese soldier Kadokawa (Nakaizuma Hideo) sitting in the blinding sunshine. Part elated military conqueror and childish poetic-minded wanderer, Kadokawa’s meanderings guiding the camera’s eye to poetic details like curled barb wire and a landscape obscured by cannon smoke and mist.
As Kadokawa and his comrades mop up the massacre, Chinese citizens and leftover soldiers including Commander Lu (Ye Liu, mesmerising) operate on the sidelines, defiantly trying to defend themselves against the Japanese soldiers. In the "Safety Zone", official translator for the German government, Tang (Fan Wei in a sympathetic performance) tries to use his Japanese language skills to placate the invaders, while trying to keep his family and many of their friends safe.
The film neither shies from nor indulges in gory contemplations of war's excesses. The beheadings, the rapes, the methodical organisation of the "Comfort Women", the cold-blooded murder is all there, but cleverly directed scenes give the impression of showing more than a first viewing implies, ultimately the film is to be admired for its restraint. The black and white presentation not only echoes the film footage of the era, but also creates a merciful distancing effect.
The performances are universally impressive and mostly have a low key dignity. The Chinese protagonists are mostly subdued, even when they are surrounded by screaming Chinese countryfolk desperate for survival. But the film's awe-inspiring dramatic trump card is the weird victory dance parade conducted by the Japanese soldiers near the film's end. Both hypnotic and chilling it’s a compelling film image that recalls the bizarre fascination that greets a viewing of Leni Reifenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. Yet director Lu doesn’t let that taiko scored promenade be the film’s last word. A moving coda with Kadokawa, offers hope and despair in equal measure.