MFF Review

“The City of Life and Death”

By - Sep 22nd, 2011 04:00 am

The City of Life and Death is both poetic and harsh. Shot in black and white with the sound sparse and focused, the film takes place in the weeks following the 1937 invasion of China’s former capitol, Nanjing (Nanking), by Japanese forces. The Japanese army took the city in just three days, and during the three week period that followed, Japanese troops murdered some 300,000 unarmed Chinese soldiers and civilians. It is estimated that as many as 80,000 women were raped. The massacre has been named, most notoriously for American audiences in the subtitle of Iris Chang’s 1997 book The Rape of Nanking, as the “forgotten Holocaust of World War II.”

Film director and writer, Lu Chuan, juxtaposes close-up details of human characters with long shots of marching troops and the city’s destruction. With the former technique, the victims (and enemies) of war are personalized and presented as close to us; the latter method reminds us that too often war is made abstract or one dimensional. Chuan somewhat softens the carnage in the film, which if shown as detailed in Chang’s book, would be unbearable. Somewhat surprisingly, The City of Life and Death shows Japanese forces in a humane light despite the atrocities they commit. The soldiers are shown not only as killing machines, but also as victims of a nationalistic ideology with violent means.

By focusing on a handful of individuals living through and dying in the massacre, Chuan is able to deliver incredibly harrowing images, both realistic and artful. Central to the film is the character Mr. Tang, along with his wife and small daughter. Mr. Tang is the Chinese assistant to German officer John Rabe, who helped to create the Nanking Safety Zone, a refugee camp established in Nanking to shelter and feed Chinese civilians during the invasion. Rabe has been credited with saving thousands of Chinese lives by using his affiliation with the Nazi party to dissuade Japanese officers from slaughtering civilians. Chuan intersperses images of Rabe’s diary entries, which detail the brutality, throughout the film.

For young people who are coming of age during a time of economic turmoil and increasingly extremist political rhetoric, The City of Life and Death is an important film. It is a reminder that humans have gone to the darkest corners of our nature to protect, preserve, or promote our notions of ourselves and our country — and how those who we define ourselves against has been integral to such decisions.

The City of Life and Death premiered in China in 2009, grossing 150 million yuan (upward of $20 million), and will screen as part of the 2011 Milwaukee Film Festival.

The City of Life and Death will be shown at the Landmark Oriental Theatre (2230 N. Farwell Ave.) at 4:15 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 23, at the Marcus Ridge Cinema (5200 S. Moorland Rd., New Berlin) at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 25 and the Marcus North Shore Cinema (11700 N. Port Washington Rd., Mequon) on Thursday, Sept. 29.

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