Last week, my parents and Joshua and I went downtown to see “City Of Life And Death”, a Chinese film about The Rape Of Nanking.
The film, released in China in 2009, was written and directed by Lu Chuan. “City Of Life And Death” is Chuan’s third feature film.
In two-and-a-quarter hours, Chuan presents the story of the 1937 Japanese invasion of Nanking and the countless horrors that occurred during the fighting itself as well as during the occupation that followed.
The Rape Of Nanking was one of the most frightful events of the 1930s. No one will ever know precisely how many persons died in Nanking—the most conservative estimates are well over 100,000 deaths—but the merciless slaughter of civilians was on a scale not seen in civilized times. The inhumanity of the Japanese Army was unimaginable—and caused a worldwide uproar. Even Fascist Italy and Fascist Germany were appalled at the atrocities committed in Nanking, many documented in photographs smuggled to the West and instantly published in American and European newspapers and magazines. The Rape Of Nanking served as precursor for the brutality the Japanese Army was to display during World War II, only four years in the future on The Pacific Front.
Shot in black-and-white, “City Of Life And Death” has the look and feel of a documentary film. Hand-held cameras were used for many of the fighting sequences and for many of the scenes of atrocities, and the use of such devices further lends a documentary aura to the film.
The film is beautifully photographed. Sweeping panoramas, meticulously-crafted mid-range compositions, agonizing close-ups: all are used to near-breathtaking effect. The cinematographer of “City Of Life And Death” is genuinely a master—the composition of many scenes suggests an in-depth study of Old Master paintings—and I should like to see the cinematographer’s work again. His name is Cao Yu.
Editing, alas, lets the film down. The editing is no more sophisticated than the editing of the average television movie. Because the editing is so perfunctory, “City Of Life And Death” lacks coherency and inevitability—and, fatally, never acquires a rhythm. This is the chief deficiency of the film, and probably the reason “City Of Life And Death” was not granted a general release outside China.
The script, such as it is, does not help matters. The first half hour of the film portrays the fighting between the Japanese and Chinese armies. The next hour focuses on the rape and slaughter of Chinese women, as well as forced prostitution. The final three-quarter-hour attempts to wrap up the story by focusing on the fates of two characters: a Japanese soldier with moral qualms about the actions of his fellow soldiers; and a Chinese civilian working in an international safety zone, where American and German diplomats and civilians attempted to shield tens of thousands of Chinese from the Japanese Army. Needless to say, both characters die, which I believe is meant to constitute catharsis.
The plot scheme does not provide a satisfactory structure for the film. The first section is quasi-military documentary, the second section weepy tearjerker (totally unconvincing because the women look like actors—and modern actors, no less), and the third section ineffective character study. The result is that “City Of Life And Death” comes across as three separate films, with the finest of the three films presented first.
And yet the movie is fascinating from first frame to last. One can hardly take one’s eyes from the screen. The reason is simple enough: a nonstop flow of unspeakable atrocities is generally bound to seize and hold the viewer’s attention.
“City Of Life And Death” is serious, and earnest, and—because of its subject matter—gripping. The film is not, however, a fine specimen of the filmmaker’s art. It is the cinematic equivalent of a Czerny etude: there is lots of movement, but no destination; much energy must be expended, but there are no intellectual or emotional rewards.
Like the music of Czerny, everything in “City Of Life And Death” is very much on the surface. Everything very much lacks resonance. Everything is very impersonal. Nothing has been filtered through the mind of a great artist. The material calls out for a master director such as a David Lean or a Bernardo Bertolucci, directors capable of creating sweep and mood and momentum and drama.
“City Of Life And Death” has an exact parallel from the moviemaking past: “The Longest Day”, Warner Brothers’ clumsy 1962 big-budget retelling of the story of D-Day (also filmed in black-and-white so as to lend a documentary presence).
“The Longest Day” was also serious, and earnest, and—because of its subject matter—gripping. “The Longest Day” was not, however, a good film. It was artless, and shapeless, and profoundly frustrating, and often incompetent.
“City Of Life And Death” strikes me as China’s “The Longest Day”.
In both cases, a better director was needed. In both cases, better writers were needed to shape the material. In both cases, a sequence of glorious scenes recreating historic events, carefully planned and beautifully executed and filmed, fundamentally amounted to very little.