Saturday, January 9, 2010

CITY OF LIFE AND DEATH (Lu Chuan, 2009, China) Nanking becomes the Phoenix of Southern China, rising from the ashes of its sepulcher…though its citizens remain dead and buried, victims of the Japanese massacre, never forgotten in the ethereal mists of time. Director Lu Chuan vividly tells the story of the Nanking Massacre, the few weeks in 1937 where the Japanese Army invaded the city and laid it to waste. Though the film’s historicity can be argued, for Chuan never shows the Chinese “scorched-earth policy” that decimated much of their own city before the invasion, the scattered narrative instead focuses upon a few archetypes, an omniscient observer utilizing a cinema verite style where the brutality is revealed as casually effective. The impressive black and white cinematography both adds atmosphere and creates a realistic setting: it is an emotionally incongruous effect that distances the viewer enough from the story to become involved in it.

The opening scenes are faded postcards written in English that disclose the history and context of the battle, before descending into nightmare. Chuan does show the retreat at the Yijiang gate where Chinese soldiers killed their compatriots and civilians, as many are shot and trampled under the panicked exodus. The story’s structure is almost a free association, jumping from one bloody scene to the next, though it begins to coalesce into a semi-coherent character sketch of the Nazi John Rabe, his secretary and family, a few Chinese civilians forced into merciless prostitution, and a few compassionate Japanese soldiers who see this dreadful violence as abhorrent…but are powerless to stop it.

The battle scenes are grimy and realistic, as the meek resistance sputters and finally fails, but it’s the aftermath that becomes the nucleus as we witness the murder and rape of children and young women. In one scene, we are shown a Japanese soldier throwing a child from a third story window for no reason, except as a message that war empties the soul of all dignity and respect, that man as animal becomes chaos incarnate where selfishness negates humanity and becomes the grimoire of immorality.

The film is also about the inherent contradictions of the human spirit, as Nazi Counsel John Rabe creates a free zone to save thousands of civilians…but he’s also a representative of an Axis regime whose mantra is also murder and dehumanization. A Japanese officer witnesses a beautiful young woman insanely dancing after she’s been physically and spiritually broken, and he executes her as he mutters “She was too beautiful to live a life like this”: what seems an act of cruelty is actually one of kindness. Later, this same officer releases a Chinese soldier and a boy from the city swearing, “To live is more difficult than die”: so his act of tenderness becomes one of malice…then he takes his own life.

Lu Chuan depicts the rape of the innocent women not only as an actual accounting of the horror but also as a metaphor for the fall of the city, as the victims are literally assaulted until their bodies become cold lifeless shells, bereft of human values and the soft breath of life. Nanking has become purgatory where many who desire life have it taken away…and those who welcome death’s embrace must live with these infernal memories. Final Grade: (B)


Samuel Wilson said...

This sounds like an interesting reversal of episodes in which Japanese diplomats in Europe helped rescue Jewish people from the Nazis. The black and white look reminds me of a great Chinese WW2 movie, Devils on the Doorstep. And this comment gives me an opportunity to inform you that I've recognized yours as "One Lovely Blog" over at my own. Congratulations.

Alex DeLarge said...

I've never seen DEVILS IN THE DOORSTEP but will most definately track down a copy! Thank you for the recognition over at your great blog:)