City of Life and Death (2009)

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War is hell…simple as that

Words: Desmond Childs

I don’t know about you guys, but any depiction of war makes me cringe; and it seems as though “war” is something that has become a way of life the last 15, 20 years. I had to catch myself blowing off a story about how 3 or 4 more soldiers being killed in a roadside bombing a month or so ago. It’s weird how we’re able to desynthesize stories of murder and death as if they were nothing to scoff at. A life is a life, whether it’s some poor soldier in Iran, or it’s your nextdoor neighbor, we all gotta go sometime. Which was exactly what one of the characters in this film, “City of Life and Death” says right before ordering a “friend” to be executed. The movie takes all the horrible ideas and realities of war and places them on screen for us to tremble at. It’s hard for me to say I “enjoyed” watching “The Rape of Nanking”, but I did appreciate director Lu Chuan’s reconstructing the nightmare that was “The Battle of Nanking”.

Directed By:

Lu Chuan

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Mr. Lu graduated (with a Master’s in Film studies) from Beijing Film Academy in 1998. Although he’s considered one of the better young directors in China, he actually got his start co-writing the television series, Black Hole; which was (at one point) the most watched television show in China. From there he jumped into his directorial debut in 2002 with ‘The Missing Gun’. He followed that project up with his film, ‘Mountain Patrol’; before his third film ‘City of Life and Death’. Although his sophomore effort is easily his most renowned film (17 different awards); his other two movies also garnered praise. As of now, he’s added two more films to the resume with ‘The Last Supper’ (2011) and ‘Shangai, I love you’ (2013). In ‘City of Life and Death’ which is filmed in black and white; the asthetic quality is in the shock value on screen. There are many outrageous, shocking things that take place on screen (i.e. throwing a child out a window); and so I spent those times crying out in an interesting mix of confusion, sorrow, and appreciation over Lu Chuan’s boldness in putting it into the movie.

Living is harder than dying…if you’re the last one alive!

So to lay the plot out for you guys; this film attempts to recreate the battle between Japanese and Chinese soldiers known as ‘The Rape of Nanking’. The protagonists being the Chinese underdogs are having to hold out against the evil, heartless Japanese threat. A number of characters flash in and out of the story and the meat of the picture seems to be in just the mass destruction, uncertainty, and hopelessness the Japanese managed to spread across the capital of the Republic of China. In case you’re a history buff, you’d probably recognize ‘The Rape of Nanking’ as being a part of the Second Sino-Japanese War (July 7, 1937-September 9, 1945).

As I mentioned earlier, the film plays out (at least the first 25 minutes or so) like some live, streaming coverage of a scrimmage; if the media were aloud to shoot close-ups of headshots and soldiers tossing grenades into rooms full of women and children. Yes, all nervous jokes aside, there are some shots Chuan frames in this film that really burned into my brain. In particular, the “comfort houses” Japanese soldiers made in order to rape Chinese women for hours on end (and to death in many cases). Also, the brutality toward the prisoners of war. I grew up understanding how awful the treat of the Jews by Nazi Germany was; but had no idea how bloody things got in China. I mean, early in the film, we get scenes of hundreds of prisoners being told to stand up and run toward a sea. The ones who made it were lucky enough to die by drowning while the not so lucky ones were gunned down by the Japanese machine gun nests. And I’m mean, no one survived. Well, one main character in this film does, but still. He was a kid, and that was by the grace of God. And in that sense, the entire movie rarely tried to add any artifical charm or hope where it wasn’t realistic to put. The only smiles we got in the film were from people who had accepted their fate, or from Japanese soldiers celebrating their victory over Nankin toward the end of the film. Well, again, the ending does give us some sort of hope, I guess? Or maybe it’s like a weird moment where two characters who had been to hell and back got to enjoy some sort of normalacy after all the blood and death. Who knows, but this film is one I’d recommend to people who want to ‘see what really happened’. By no means are rape scenes and scenes of brutal violence ‘glorified’ but they do indeed dominate a major chunk of the movie; so be ready to squirm a little in your easy chair. While you drink your bottle of Pepsi, and pop a gummy bear into your pampered, American craw.

Check out the trailer below:

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