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City of Life and Death (Premiere in Paris)

Friday 27 August 2010, by Abla Kandalaft

Lu Chuan’s City of Life and Death deals with the surprisingly and depressingly little known Battle of Nanjing and its aftermath (otherwise referred to the Nanking Massacre). The events took place in 1937 as the Japanese Army captured the then-capital of the Republic of China, Nanjing. The several weeks that followed saw tens of thousands of Chinese soldiers and civilians killed. Lu Chuan’s The city of life and Death is grand cinema at its best. It packs all the brutality and energy of a war film with none of the overpowering mishmash of explosions, blood and other myriad bangs and crashes.
This is in part due to the fact that the film oscillates between massive scale, epic battle scenes and intimate close-ups as we follow the personal trajectories through the carnage of several real and fictional figures; including a Chinese soldier, a schoolteacher, a Japanese soldier, and John Rabe, a civil servant on the payroll of the Nazi administration who ended up saving thousands of Chinese civilians. Subjected to a different treatment, the savagery of the attacks, sadism of the soldiers and piles and heaps of cadavers would have been over the top and defeated the purpose of the film. And yet, the images are impressive and powerful and at times surreal. Lu Chuan’s approach allows us to empathise with the various characters, most interestingly the afore-mentioned John Rabe.
We are also given an insight into the experience of a Japanese soldier. One would expect the usual they-weren’t-all-bad anti-hero, dramatically shifting away from blind loyalty to his army as the brutality of it all dawns on him, tearing up as he witnesses injustice. None of that happens. Lu Chuan’s approach is much more subtle. The soldier’s immediate concerns as he leaves the battleground revolve around the much more mundane, and yet all too human crush on his hired “comfort woman”. We get a sense of his growing discomfort but he remains part of the action and the conquering army. Lu Chuan’s refusal to dehumanise his characters doesn’t take anything away from the horror of the events unfolding before our eyes. It is a powerful film that has criticism from Chinese and Japanese audiences alike. And yet, it ends on a surprisingly uplifting note.

Already released in France, it will be screened at the London Film Festival on 28 October.

See Q and A with director Lu Chuan in Unexplored: Q and As section

Dir: Lu Chuan, 2010

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