May 23, 2011

Highly Recommended: Lu Chuan's Masterful and Tragic Film 'City of Life and Death'

In high school I read The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, a book by the late Iris Chang about the Imperial Japanese Army's atrocities against the occupants of the Chinese city of Nanjing during World War II. The story of 250,000 deaths (in six weeks alone) so affected me that I had a hard time empathizing with my fellow well-to-do suburban classmates for many months after. Now filmmaker Lu Chuan has made the first big-budget Chinese feature film about the events, City of Life and Death, and it's an amazing and deeply felt movie that deserves to be seen widely (released in China in 2009, it's only now getting a U.S. release). Here's the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9td_3P3w1S4

City of Life and Death has been described as "the Chinese Schindler's List," and while Chuan has said that it wasn't his intention to make such a film, I find the comparison apt. Not only because they're both black-and-white World War II films about overseas atrocities, but because they're both superbly crafted, deeply affecting stories that should be seen by everyone. Unfortunately, City of Life and Death is subtitled and features a cast of made up mostly of Asian actors unknown in the States, so as a result its domestic box office will be a fraction of the $100 million (in 1993 dollars) that List took (nor will it receive anywhere near as wide a release). It's a NY Times Critic's Pick and might just be the most powerful film you see this year. It is not, however, for kids or those sensitive to on-screen violence -- as you can imagine given the subject matter.

One of the more brilliant angles to the film is how it depicts the Japanese soldiers. War films often only tell one side of the story, and you'd certainly expect City of Life and Death to follow suit in state-controlled China. But Chuan depicts the Japanese soldiers as very human, and in fact opens the film from the Japanese side, which apparently caused quite a controversy in China. There's more on this from Chuan in an excellent interview at Filmmaker Magazine:

Why is there war? I wanted to make a movie about the Nanjing massacre, but then I started to explore the history of massacres, during the Ming and Qing dynasties, and learned they happened everywhere. It’s not something that belongs to Japanese people. So I decided to [articulate] this kind of feeling in my movie. I don’t want my son or daughter, younger brother or sister to look at the Japanese [in the] way [we did]. It’s not true. The massacre was in 1937. After 70 years, we have to reconsider it from a different angle. The Japanese troops were criminal — but the biggest criminal was the war itself. It twisted human nature. It pushed normal people to pull the trigger. I was in the army for several years, you know. I know if I was in uniform on the battlefield, I would pull the trigger on strangers if the [military] authorities asked me to. So what’s the nature of war? Why does it make us become so desperate, so helpless? At that stage, I became aware that I was making a film about the truth of all wars and massacres.

On a more personal note, my own mother was born in China during WWII and spent her childhood hiding from the Japanese before coming to the U.S. in 1949. While I found City to be almost unbearably heart-wrenching because of these personal connections, anyone will find it to be a poignant, disturbing, and emotional tale. Many of us (myself included) would not be here today if our ancestors had not survived the events of WWII -- it makes one feel lucky to be alive in the here and now.

City of Life and Death is at Film Forum in NYC through Tuesday (May 24); if you're not in New York, see here for upcoming theatrical runs, or save it to your Netflix queue.

Your Comment

18 Comments

first: i really appreciate your blog and im thankful for all the information you share with us.

i was a little upset about the connections you made up (maybe inspired by the title of the book you wrote about, which does not sounds like an very scientific approach - which in my eyes would mean, leave the word "holocaust" to an specific incident and dont use it to describe any other war crimes and or mass murders), and im still against the connection between schindlers list and city of life and death (im aware of the similarities in a way of "cinematic thinking", but dont see that much connection between the two historical events.

but before we end up in political discussions: i remembered about an german production from the same year (2009) which has the title "John Rabe" - the so called "Schindler of china". even if i dont share this point of view, its fitting into your argumentation. thats why i just wanted to share it with you

there is no doubt, that "city of life and death" seems to be a lot "better" (again, as a movie) than the terrible "john rabe" (acutally a german-french-chinese co-production)

whatever ... here are some links:

John Rabe @ IMDb http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1124377/ , http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Rabe (person)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Rabe_(film)

May 23, 2011 at 12:43PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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phil h.

Phil -- I'm not entirely sure what you're saying about the "connections [i] made up," to be honest. The use of the word "Holocaust" comes from Iris Chang's book. But there are certainly plenty of connections, not the least of which is John Rabe, as you mention -- in City of Life and Death, he's portrayed as nothing less than a hero. And, of course, both atrocities were committed as part of World War II by Axis powers, so there's that connection as well. But by no means did I mean to make this post about the Holocaust; it's about Nanjing (formerly known as Nanking), as is the film.

May 23, 2011 at 3:51PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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Ryan Koo
Founder
Writer/Director

thanks for your reply! to make this clear: i wasnt happy with using the term "holocaust" describing the events which happened in nanjing (i wrote this connected to the book you wrote about, as an opening for your article). so it just something i wanted to point out, dont get it wrong. i dont feel that comfortable about my comment anymore, cause it puts the spotlight on to different things, which i think are far too complex to discuss them in relation with those two movies.

i hope you didnt felt offended by my words. of course i never wanted to imply something, you actually did not wrote about.

thanks a lot for your little review and reminder and i´ll try to watch "city of life and death" as soon as possible.

greetings, phil h.

May 23, 2011 at 5:45PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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phil h.

@ phil h. : FYI, "holocaust" is an English word that means "destruction or slaughter on a mass scale, esp. caused by fire or nuclear war." The Holocaust (capitial H) refers to the persecution of the Jews during WWII in Europe, but A holocaust was most certainly happening in Asia, where Japanese soldiers and other occupiers were systematically murdering and enslaving Chinese and Koreans. Nanjing was just one incident. See also, the comfort women system, Unit 731 (don't read about that with a full stomach, though), etc.

@ Koo: Great post. FYI, if you're interested in the subject, Iris Chang's book is, by reputation, a bit sensationalist and not too well researched. I highly suggest you read "The Nanjing Massacre: A Japanese Journalist Confronts Japan's National Shame" which is a great and exhaustively-researched book on the Nanjing massacres by one of Japan's best investigative journalists. It's full of documentation and proof that these things happened because of orders that came from the highest levels of the military and the government (which Japan has often denied) and it goes into detail on the brutal march TO Nanjing (rarely mentioned, but just as bloody as what happened after the Japanese army got to Nanjing).

May 24, 2011 at 1:15AM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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I think what Phil is saying is that there is only one Holocaust (with a capital H) that is worth calling one, and it happened to the Jews in Europe. This is of course an incorrect way of thinking. It leads only to a "mine's bigger" approach to discussing atrocities and validating their relative importance.

The truth is that there's a holocaust happening somewhere everyday in the world and they all deserve to be made into a high budget feature film.

May 23, 2011 at 6:15PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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Max

At least JOHN RABE didn't change facts of history so that it suits the film better. Seriously, I saw an interview with the director of "City of Life and Death" on chinese television... That guy made me mad angry. He made a lot of shit for this film up and simply ignored true facts to make it more emotional. Not cool.

May 26, 2011 at 3:09PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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I've seen this film last year, very depressing and it left a long lasting impression on me. Deserves a first and second viewing.

May 23, 2011 at 1:24PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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sch15m

So does this movie bring in the doctored photos that the Chinese used to show the "atrocities"? Does it mention that with such a massacre, the population actually increased in Nanking from before to after the invasion? Did it mention that the Chinese army was left to die there by the Chinese leadership because of personal differences? Did it mention that the Japanese and Chinese were friends before the war, and that Japan had invaded to help remove the Western influence from Asia and to save China? Does it mention that NOBODY had discussed this massacre for decades after, when this book was written?

I know it won't, because research is less glamorous than propaganda.

May 23, 2011 at 6:01PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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Joe

Joe: I wonder where you did your "research," because the information you're regurgitating here is highly biased and would be laughed out of the room by serious history scholars of the Pacific War. Here's the part where I sound like an arrogant asshole, but: having taken a class specifically about this war at an ivy league college, and read extensive scholarly works from Japan, China, and the West on the subject, I am quite confident in suggesting that you are categorically wrong. For example:

The massacres at Nanjing, and elsewhere, did occur. Read "The Nanjing Massacre: A Japanese Journalist Confronts Japan's National Shame," it's written by one of Japan's most respected investigative journalists and it contains more proof than you can shake a stick at. Chang's book may be poorly researched, but that doesn't mean her conclusions are wrong. Mostly, they aren't. Read Katsuichi Honda's book.

Japan and China were not, in any way shape or form, "friends" before the war. And Japan's invasion had nothing to do with removing Western influence. You seem to be quoting directly from the Japanese propaganda line from that time, but in fact, China was not at all friendly with Japan, since Japan had just taken concessions from China (previously held by Germany) that China had hoped to get back. When the concessions were instead given to Japan at the end of WWI, Chinese were so mad that they started a massive protest movement and attempted to burn down several foreign embassies, including the Japanese embassy as I recall.

And plenty of people discussed this after the war. In fact, Japan's atrocities in China and Korea have been a constant sore spot that has colored east asian politics from the 1940s right up to the present day. No one in the US was talking about it, because no one in the US cares about Asia. But that doesn't mean it didn't happen.

Anyway, I have to go back to work now, so I'll leave it at this. But suffice to say that for someone who ostensibly respects "research", you seem to have done almost none.

May 24, 2011 at 1:26AM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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@Joe, I'm not sure what drugs you are on or what TV channels you are watching, but you are getting your info from some very strange sources. To call into question the very existence of the massacre in Nanjing is simply childish, as is your mention that Japan invaded China to wipe out the Western influence. Joe, get a grip on reality. My family has lived in China (I'm a Caucasian American) on and off since 1884 when my great grandmother moved there. My great grandmother survived the Japanese during the war and then my grandfather escaped the Japanese from Burma and walked out on the Burma road. These are facts, Joe, not propaganda. The Japanese atrocities in China (and the rest of Asia for that matter!) have left wounds in Asia that are still very real. I live in Singapore. While the Japanese were here, they walked into a hospital and bayonetted pregnant women and injured patients while they were in their beds. Over 100 were killed in that hospital alone. I hope you are not going to go ahead and justify their actions in other parts of Asia as well.

May 24, 2011 at 1:41AM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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Alex

I wonder if the Chinese propaganda machine will make a fim about its slaughter of millions...let me repeat this...MILLiONS!...of its own people? I think not.

It might be a beautiful film but the nationalist overtone make me worry for the future.

May 23, 2011 at 6:59PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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Freddie

Freddie: FYI, this film was quite controversial in China when it came out because it wasn't uber-nationalist and it portrayed the Japanese as actual people rather than inhuman monsters. I haven't seen it, so I won't say too much myself, but based on the critical discourse in the Chinese media at the time, it's considered here to be a pretty liberal film (which of course made some conservatives very angry).

May 24, 2011 at 1:18AM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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the film had to fight the censors for a year before getting the green light, precisely because it's not the official propaganda that they're used to

May 24, 2011 at 4:04AM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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Yeah, because american movies aren't filled with nationalist overtone and subliminal (or explicit) overpatriotic crap. Give me a break.

May 24, 2011 at 10:29PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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maghoxfr

There are a lot of Chinese films that show this. You need not look further back than this year for releases based on wars when Chinese fought Chinese over the land.

May 26, 2011 at 11:33PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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City of Life and Death is by no means propaganda. The atrocities in Nanjing are generally agreed on by historians everywhere. The film itself is the work of a writer/director Lu Chuan -- one person, not a government -- and was actually controversial in China because of its humanizing depiction of the Japanese. Yes, that's right -- it was controversial because it wasn't nationalist enough.

Joe, are you using "atrocities" in quotes because you don't believe they actually happened? And you seriously believe "Japan had invaded to help remove the Western influence from Asia and to save China?" Because slaughtering hundreds of thousands and raping tens of thousands of Chinese is really going to save the country, clearly.

At no point in this post do I defend the actions of the Chinese government surrounding Nanjing or any other incident, for that matter. See the film, and reserve your judgements until you do.

May 23, 2011 at 7:59PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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Ryan Koo
Founder
Writer/Director

please close comments to this thread...

May 24, 2011 at 4:03AM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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As long as everyone tries to keep it within the context of film, there is no harm in discussing...

I think there could have been more of a connected story, but the characters were given too many random scenes to highlight the time period and conflict/point of views.

I realize it was likely done to show both sides in a more honest/alternative way, but still felt a little off to me.

I've only recently learned of this time in Chinese history, but have watched a few different films on the subject. They definitely give the Japanese more 'credit' than anyone else, showing them as far more human than the others do.

I thought it was pretty good overall, and is definitely a unique piece of work.

I think it'll do poorly in the Western box office due to the above (not that foreign films ever do well in it!).

May 27, 2011 at 12:00AM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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