THE FILM City of Life and Death depicts the Japanese Imperial army's infamous massacre of the Chinese city of Nanking in 1937. This remarkable and controversial movie leaves the viewer shocked and overwhelmed by its content.
In July 1937 imperialist Japan embarked on an all-out war against China. The ruling class of Japan wished to dominate its neighbour and seize its abundant natural resources. After Shanghai fell to the Japanese army that August, the Chinese army retreated to its capital, Nanking.
Filmed in black and white, giving it a documentary feel, City of Life and Death portrays the events from both the Chinese and Japanese point of view in the 'Rape of Nanking'. This angered many Chinese and resulted in death threats to director Lu Chuan which nearly resulted in the film's release in China being shelved.
To the Chinese, the destruction of the old capital of China and the cruel slaughter of 300,000 inhabitants burns deep in the national psyche. On the other side, some Japanese right-wingers deny such atrocities ever occurred, which is absurd and flies in the face of the evidence.
Director Lu Chuan tells the story from different points of view: that of a conquering Japanese soldier; a Chinese resistance fighter and his group of brave but outnumbered soldiers; the Nazi businessman John Rabe who, ironically, helped set up the 'Safety Zone' for refugees in the city and that of his Chinese secretary along with his family.
Character stereotypes, including of the Japanese are avoided and unlike western films on the Nanking massacre, the main focus is rightly on the Chinese and Japanese participants not of the few Europeans who played a role in these events.
The events depicted are harrowing, sometimes mundane, often brutal but not exploitative. A genuine attempt is made to realistically portray what happened in those weeks and its impacts on the lives of individuals involved: battle scenes are brutally realistic; Chinese POWs are slaughtered on an industrial scale; civilians are summarily executed; mass rape and enforced sexual enslavement of Chinese women is shown.
The images are shocking but in some respects restrained. For example, no coverage is made of the Japanese officers' 'sport' of beheading Chinese soldiers nor the use of chemical weapons by the invaders, though one scene does depict Japanese soldiers wearing gas masks.
City of Life and Death (released in China under the title Nanjing Nanjing) is a difficult film to watch, leaving the viewer emotionally drained. It depicts a terrible historical event that is little known in the West but which has affected the Chinese view of their fellow Asians in Japan to this day.
The brave approach by the director to depict the Japanese soldier as an ordinary human corrupted by events of war and his rulers' reactionary ideology may go some way to healing this rift.