Movie Review: The City of Life and Death

The Second Sino-Japanese War is a relatively unknown part of the Second World War here in the US. Japanese troops invaded Manchuria in 1931, and by 1937 sporadic skirmishes had evolved into a full-scale war which would claim more lives than both sides of Hitler’s invasion of Russia. The Imperial Japanese Army was a brutal occupying force, an its actions following the capture of the Chinese capital of Nanking ranks with the worst incidents of the European Holocaust. Iris Chang brought those events back into the world’s awareness with her landmark work The Rape of Nanking in 1997.

As you might expect, a movie describing these events it not exactly going to be a jolly good time. I recently had the opportunity to watch Chuan Lu’s masterpiece film The City of Life and Death which depicts the battle for the streets of Nanking and the atrocities that followed. The picture is in Chinese and Japanese (with English subtitles), and filmed entirely in black and white. The choice to not use color gives it a distinct air of 1930s authenticity and an appropriately stark atmosphere.

The first third or so of the movie has some of the best combat footage I’ve ever seen – as good or better than any American blockbuster. It is shown from the point of view of both Chinese and Japanese soldiers, and the attention to detail in the sets, weapons and equipment is excellent. This is fighting as it actually happens, without the gratuitous fireballs and spraying machine guns we usually see.

Once the city falls, the focus moves to the International Safety Zone where a Nazi businessman named John Rabe was (somewhat ironically) instrumental in protecting many Chinese civilians from massacre. We follow Rabe’s Chinese right-hand man as he desperately attempts to save his family and the refugees in the Safety Zone (which is anything but).

I’m not much of a film connoisseur – my taste is normally for flashy popcorn flicks that don’t require any thought. But even I can appreciate the extraordinary skill with which this film was made. The camera work is breathtaking, capturing the chaos of combat, the stoicism of doomed Chinese prisoners, and the terror or civilians trying to survive in an environment as terrible as Stalingrad or the Warsaw Ghetto. This is a film that should be seen by anyone who wants to understand what war is truly like, and it’s not a film that can be taken lightly. I would plan to spend some solitary time reflecting on its implications after the final credits roll.

The trailer doesn’t really do it justice, but it does give  a taste of the cinematography:

Somewhat to my surprise, it is easily available in the US – you can get a copy right here through Amazon: