Tuesday, August 2, 2011

City of Life and Death (2009)

City of Life and Death / Nanjing! Nanjing! (2009)
City of Life and Death / Nanjing! Nanjing! / 南京! 南京! (2009)

Best New Film
Genre: War Drama
Director: Lu Chuan
Starring: Liu Ye, Gao Yuanyuan, Hideo Nakaizumi, Wei Fan
Duration: 133 min.
Rating: 8.3 

In December 1937, the Imperial Japanese Army laid siege to and captured the Chinese capital of Nanjing.  The ensuing bloodshed now known as the Nanking Massacre, or the Rape of Nanking, was a period of several weeks when tens of thousands of Chinese soldiers and civilians were brutally killed.  This is the re-creation of those events.

City of Life and Death is a Chinese film written and directed by Lu Chuan.  His third feature film, it was released theatrically with box office success in it's home country in April 2009.  It was also awarded the Golden Shell for best film, and best cinematography at the 2009 San Sebastian Film festival.

Brutal, haunting, and emotionally draining are some of the first words that came to mind while watching the credits roll after watching this film.  Director Lu Chuan shows some considerable talent with this unforgettable cinematic portrait of The Rape of Nanking, one of the darkest moments in our recent history.  It was filmed with astonishing hand held black and white cinematography, giving the film an added layer of realism that somehow makes watching all the orchestrated death and destruction an even more disturbing experience.

Much like the recently discussed The Red and The White by Miklós Jancsó, this film doesn't take sides or follow a traditional scripted narrative, instead it jumps around from one character to the next depicting the various horrors and atrocities of war.  What was most surprising was the inclusion of the point of view of Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi) a sympathetic Japanese sergeant, who actually comes across as the lone human amongst monsters, a decision that must have been quite controversial with Chinese audiences, but one that added some welcome balance to this gruesome epic.

Despite the horrific imagery on display, the film does have moments of beauty.  One amazing scene near the end stands out in particular.  Showing a Japanese ceremony, that appears to be both a tribute to their fallen comrades and some sort of victory march.  A few hundred soldiers parade in a choreographed dance through the dust and rubble of the destroyed city, with dozens of large banners and flags waving, all to the beat of a massive taiko drum carried on an elevated platform.  It truly is a surreal and staggering sight.

Though some may find the ending a bit of a false note of hope, I thought it was a cleverly veiled nod to the Fat Man and Little Boy who would finally end the war.  Definitely not one for the faint of heart, City of Life and Death is a powerful and unflinching cinematic experience from Lu Chuan, a highly gifted director to watch out for.  

Bonjour Tristesse

City of Life and Death / Nanjing! Nanjing! (2009)

City of Life and Death / Nanjing! Nanjing! (2009)

City of Life and Death / Nanjing! Nanjing! (2009)

City of Life and Death / Nanjing! Nanjing! (2009)

City of Life and Death / Nanjing! Nanjing! (2009)

City of Life and Death / Nanjing! Nanjing! (2009)

City of Life and Death / Nanjing! Nanjing! (2009)

City of Life and Death / Nanjing! Nanjing! (2009)

City of Life and Death / Nanjing! Nanjing! (2009)

City of Life and Death / Nanjing! Nanjing! (2009)


Bonjour Tristesse said...

Very shocking.  I sat here with the cursor blinking for quite awhile before I was able to start typing.

Bonjour Tristesse said...

Yeah, I think you would appreciate this one.

d_4 said...

This one sounds like a must for me. Has everything I'd like, maybe not for  any -time-, but it could be one of those movies I get to love.

The Reel Foto said...

Horrific event, thank you for sharing.

Hoi-Ming Ng said...

I don't think I can watch this really sad stuff. Scary stuff, sure. Sad stuff, not always.

Bonjour Tristesse said...

Yeah I thought the ending symbolism was well done.  It is a very grim and depressing film, but a good reminder to those of us whose only experience with war are action films or playing Call of Duty.

Bonjour Tristesse said...

I actually think the director showed quite a bit of restraint here.  Don't know if it was the work of the Chinese censorship board or of his own volition, but it really wasn't as gory or exploitative as it could have been.

As for the glimmer of hope, I was referring to the final scene that takes place outside of the city walls, not the dance sequence.

Thanks for the comment.

Bonjour Tristesse said...

Thanks for reading

Bonjour Tristesse said...

I don't know if love is the right word this film.  It is a staggering and troubling work that I admire, but I certainly wont be in a hurry to see those images again

Bonjour Tristesse said...

I know what you mean.  I can watch terrible deeds in horror films and find them amusing and enjoyable because subconsciously I know it's all fake or fantasy.  This however, is on a whole different level that can really get to you.

Real Reel People said...

I love all kinds of Asian films: Japanese, Chinese, Korean. Looks like this is one that I shouldn't miss! Good review

Will said...

Now here's a film I've been looking for since I first heard about it. Hope I can see this soon.

Bonjour Tristesse said...

Thank you Andy!

FrontRoomCinema said...

Looks stunning and also a little shocking. Thanks for writing this one up BT. 

The Angry Lurker said...

I need to see this.

Colin said...

note the two characters who walk off together at the end of the film. A fatman and a little boy. Decent film, a bit too tough-going for my tastes.

FilmMasterT said...

Amazing review and great images! I may check this one out

Ibe Tolis said...

I had real trouble watching this film, knowing of the events made it all too much in some regards and I did start to wonder if some of the scenes were veering on the side of gratuitous.  How then are you meant to capture one of the worst atrocities in living memory?  Thankfully I'm not in a position to answer that but I salute anyone daring to put this to film. 

I agree however about that fantastic ending, a real bolt out of the blue and a real sense of the other world, it really felt like an inspired decision and I didn't read it as hope per se, more like arrogance and degredation, summing up the whole surreal dystopian nightmare in one fantastic fatal dance. 

Great write up here, I really enjoyed reading your take on a troubling but worthwhile film. 

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