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City of Life and Death

Catherine von Ruhland

Directed by Lu Chuan
Certificate 15, 132 mins­


'In the memory of 300,000 victims of the Nanying Massacre' is the bleak dedication that heralds Lu Chuan's epic dramatisation of Japan's notoriously vicious 1937 routing of China's walled capital. At one level, it's all you need to know. The violence captured in City of Life and Death is almost unrelenting and my first gruelling watch seemed far longer than it actually was. As with the classic war film about Nazi occupation, Come and See, there were moments when I wondered how much more I could bear - though there isn't in either the gratuitous delight in death and torture that oozed out of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ.

Shot in black and white, the film has a newsreel quality. Yet any detachment this might cause is balanced by Lu Chuan's Altmanesque focus on the experiences of a spectrum of people trapped by history. Beneath the film's heavy title, he examines the choices individuals make, and ultimately how they remain human - or not - when they are living in hell.  

The fate of a youthful Japanese soldier, Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi) all but bookends the picture. We first see him blinking like an innocent at the sun before the Imperial Army marches into Nanying. He's a quiet observer mentally recording the atrocities around him, and a romantic dreamer falling for the first 'comfort woman' he hires, and - in his head - marrying her. By the end, Kadokawa is a war-worn sergeant who has come to the conclusion that 'life is more difficult than death'. It rounds out the film to give a Japanese perspective - and that of a 'good' soldier too, though that in itself questions the value of moral actions within a diabolical system.

No filmmaker covering what became known as 'The Rape of Nanying' could ignore the Imperial Army's horrific record of sexual violence meted out to the Chinese women they encountered. From historical records, the film's depiction of rape is minimal compared to what in reality occurred but the scenes nevertheless are brutal and more explicit than any I recall seeing in any other movie.  There's a heartbreaking scene where the women corralled in the International Safety Zone are given the choice between a hundred of them volunteering as prostitutes for the Japanese men in exchange for food and fuel for the winter - or else the entire refugee camp being destroyed. Hands slowly rise out of the crowd like flowers reaching for the sky. It's is the same courage in the face of certain death we have already seen in the Chinese POWs.

It would be easy for Lu Chuan to be despondent at what happened to his people. City of Life and Death shows nothing like the worst of it. Yet out of the fields where blood streamed he shows dandelions and meadowgrass swaying in the breeze. And the Chinese boy soldier Xiadou who's seen it all, a symbol of the spirit of life, walking away into his future.

Catherine von Ruhland