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Lu Chuan's City of Life and Death

Lu Chuan, Nanjing! Nanjing! (City of Life and Death), 2009, stills from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 132 minutes.

ON DECEMBER 13, 1937, the Imperial Japanese Army, having laid siege to Shanghai and other cities, invaded Nanjing, capital of Nationalist China. Surrendering Chinese soldiers were buried alive or massacred in the middle of the city, thousands of women and children were raped, and more than two hundred thousand civilians were killed. Many incriminating photographs of the events exist, as well as footage of the torture and killing, taken by Japanese soldiers betraying no qualms about leaving a record of their behavior. But much of what we know about the “Rape of Nanking” comes from the diaries of Westerners living in the city who established a safety zone for refugees. These included the German businessman John Rabe (whose valiant efforts to save lives have been compared to Oskar Schindler’s) and two Americans: Robert O. Wilson, a surgeon, and Minnie Vautrin, head of the Ginling Girls’ College of Nanjing.

In City of Life and Death––which opens on May 11 at Film Forum in New York––Chinese director Lu Chuan hurls the viewer into this nightmare with virtually no explanatory context, evoking a sense of the confusion, shock, and horror that must have swept over the inhabitants of Nanjing. In its first forty-five minutes, the film reenacts the siege and fall of the city and the decimation of the Chinese army as tanks bombard the citadel. Through this meticulously staged rout, Lu’s mobile camera alternates between wide-angle views of the inner city––an astonishing achievement of set design––and subjective perspectives of Chinese soldiers evading or firing on the Japanese. Later, as the camera moves through the corridors of the hospital in the safety zone, registering the desperation of those making pathetic appeals to protocol, it is driven by the relentless surge of intruding soldiers as they shove interfering staff aside, murder patients in their beds, and throw a child out a window. As chaotic as they are craftily choreographed, these sequences infuriate even as they paralyze response.

While the visceral immediacy of such images, intensified by black-and-white cinematography and handheld camerawork, recalls such classics of historical reenactment as The Battle of Algiers (1966), as well as authentic frontline documentaries like War Photographer (2001), City of Life and Death also courts an audience more responsive to spectacle and emotional manipulation than to mere facts and testimony, a strategy that helped make it (under the title Nanjing! Nanjing!) a box-office hit in China. And though domestic critical reception there was mixed, the film was praised at Cannes and other film festivals in Europe and North America. No doubt both the positive and the negative reactions reflect the film’s formulaic trappings, as well as its efforts to placate all interested parties. This it does by highlighting the fates of three characters, representing the key political forces: Rabe, the German leader of the safety zone, stands for “the West”; while Mr. Tang, his loyal, self-sacrificing secretary, represents China; and Kadokawa, an infantryman in the Imperial Army, Japan.

It is Kadokawa’s wide-eyed inexperience that most closely parallels the viewer’s stance of open-mouthed disbelief. He is the first person we see, basking in a blinding sun while awaiting orders—an apt metaphor of allegiance to the emperor. His “innocence” is symbolized by his virginity, which he loses to a Chinese “comfort girl” with whom he falls in love. By the end of the film, Rabe returns to Germany, and Tang dies defiantly after sending his pregnant wife off to safety. But Kadokawa, having witnessed the worst and been complicit in barbaric acts, puts a bullet through his brain. As if to counteract this image of a Japanese “victim,” to which Chinese audiences might understandably object, Lu contrives a final shot of a little boy, having escaped death in the fallen city, laughing, somewhat forcibly, at his own good fortune.

Lu’s ambition to forge an epic about China’s triumph over disaster is commendable, but his style often compromises this goal. Scenes of women blackmailed into serving the sexual needs of Japanese soldiers in order to protect the safety zone are diminished by melodrama and gratuitous close-ups. As if he mistrusts the power of his material, Lu rarely forfeits a great shot in favor of understatement. He turns a field into a mass graveyard and fills a church as if it were a stadium, until sheer numbers blind us to what they denote. At one point, the camera rises majestically over the head of a centrally framed soldier until the vast sprawl of the massacred Chinese army beyond him comes into view––a beautifully calibrated shot that upstages its expository purpose.

Several viewings have convinced me that fewer jaw-dropping effects would have allowed Lu’s better instincts to shine. But not every exercise in style lacks bite. The Japanese victory march near the end is a case in point. After what has preceded, we can only stare at the triumphal dance to the warrior code and the deity of the emperor through a haze of blood and disgust. Every ritualized gesture and boom of the drums rings hollow.

Tony Pipolo is the author of Robert Bresson: A Passion For Film (Oxford University Press, 2009) and a psychoanalyst in private practice in New York City.