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)