Man’s inhumanity to man is writ large, vividly, and painfully in this stark depiction of Japan’s infamous Nanking Massacre, and the experience is made all the more powerful by the unflinching and artistic strength of the filmmaking. In 1937, as part of the Second Sino-Japanese War, Japan invaded the city of Nanking, and, in a six-week period, soldiers embarked on a program of systematic executions and mass rapes. An estimated 300,000 Chinese were killed, and untold numbers of rapes and mutilations took place in an episode of hell on earth, an infamous case of high war crimes.
A major success in China, writer/director Lu Chuan’s 2009 film has gradually worked its way into the international scene and has helped to revive awareness of the tragic tale. In the film, there are characters—usually short-lived, but whom we establish emotional connection to—that give structure and empathy to the narrative. German businessman John Rabe (John Paisley), also a Nazi, was instrumental in attempting to offer protection in the absurdly named “Safety Zone.” Another character, from the occupier side, is Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi), a soldier with some pangs of conscience and decency amid the rubble and amorality.
Haunting juxtapositions arise in the film and enhance its expressive voltage. Groups of Japanese troops march in an orderly fashion through the anti-orderly, corpse-filled squalor of the ruined city. From an artistic vantage point, the carefully composed black-and-white cinematography maintains a dignity of visual elegance, in chilling contrast to the brewing and erupting anarchy.
Chuan’s challenge, well met, was to give a voice and form to the madness, which he does in both broad, shocking strokes and small, human details. Before an execution, a sympathetic soldier tells the victim, “Everybody dies in the end.” The doomed man musters a happy thought and a smile, saying, “My wife is pregnant again.” Death and tyranny continue and so does the cycle of life.
By design, City of Life and Death is one of those grim and grisly war films, but made with a sensitive and purposeful heart, whose function lies partly in aiding the process of fighting against forgetting. Chuan’s sharply etched tale of this despicable small chapter of 20th-century history, overshadowed by the WWII horrors to come, reminds us that war was, and remains, hell.