Brutal History Revisited
Published on May 12th, 2011 | by Cassady Dixon0
The Rape of Nanking is by now a well known event in the history of China, Japan and World War II in general. After the Japanese invasion of China’s then capital city, a period of massive carnage ensued, tantamount to the genocidal events occurring nearly simultaneously in Hitler’s Europe. However, unlike Hitler’s crimes, the Rape was kept mostly under the rug for decades until fairly recently. A few films have popped up on it over the past 10 years, and now we have Lu Chuan’s majestically torturous “City of Life and Death” now showing at Film Forum. Consider it every bit as epic and gruesome as Spielberg’s reigning epic of atrocity, “Schindler’s List.”
Like Spielberg, Lu chose to cover his film in the crisp nostalgia of black and white. We even have a similarly sympathetic Nazi character who aids the victimized populace as best he can. It is not an exaggeration to say that image-upon-bloody-unrelenting-image fills most of the film’s two-hour-plus running time. Soldiers are killed, families torn apart, and countless amounts of sexual violence are perpetrated by the Japanese invaders. Ironically enough, when compared to much of Spielberg’s oeuvre, Lu piles on the melodrama where “Schindler’s List” mostly resisted it. Scenes of pain and sacrifice are often given the focus and attention reserved for great opera, as if all of time itself stopped to observe one particular moment. Conversely, however, Lu’s ending is much more nihilistic than Spielberg’s, offering little hope of resolve or a brighter future. What footwork Lu does embark on to also show the point of view of the Japanese side is practically rendered null and void by the denouement, though this may very well be the point. War is never so much about good people overtaking bad ones as much as it is a conflict of ideologies with people as the instruments. Arguably the main character, Japanese soldier Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi) may be a beacon of well wishes amongst great evil, but he can barely keep his sanity just the same. As you go through the story with him the viewer is of about the same disposition as well.
Whereas “Schindler’s List,” and moreover the additionally similar “Letters from Iwo Jima,” were triumphs of individual moments (think of Spielberg’s girl in the red dress), Lu’s film serves the opera metaphor again by proving mostly successful as a grandiose spectacle. Quiet moments are given short shrift compared to much more powerful scenes of battle and heartbreaking visions of the warpath. Women lining up to give themselves over to lustful soldiers, Chinese fighting each other in the streets as they make haste for escape, POWs forced to file out towards the sea – these big moments are where Lu is at his prime.
Lu Chuan has made a stark and fittingly apocalyptic account of war with “City.” Although a few of his attempts at underlining the gravity of the situation, along with some of the visual cues, veer off into heavy-handed territory, Lu earns points for an unflinching eye. “City of Life and Death” is not a crowd pleaser, per se, but it is one that will stay with you for a long time as an education for the soul.