Starring: Gao Yuanyuan, Liu Ye, Fan Wei
Director: Lu Chuan
Running Time: 134 mins
City Of Life And Death is a Chinese film about the months of late 1937, when Japanese troops fought and occupied the Chinese capital of Nanjing, and began inflicting a reign of terror upon its inhabitants in one of the worst atrocities of modern history.
I’ve never been one to love modern Chinese war movies, with many like Operation Red Sea, The Founding Of An Army and such coming across as very loud and brutish pieces, with little depth or emotion to them at all. Fortunately, the opposite is true of City Of Life And Death, which, while taking on one of history’s most sensitive and harrowing topics, provides a riveting watch from beginning to end that matches the brutality of war with a deep emotional core as we see the entire population of the city of Nanjing terrorised, with seemingly little hope for any way out.
On the whole, this is a very good film, but before we get into why it works, it’s best to talk about the subject it’s tackling, that being the Nanjing Massacre of 1937.
In a sense, the Nanjing Massacre is on par with the likes of the Holocaust in its sensitivity and sheer horror, but we don’t see many films – particularly in the West – focusing on the atrocities committed by the Japanese army there, as 300,000 people were killed over the course of a couple of months, the entire city was razed to the ground, and many, many women and children were raped as the soldiers established a reign of terror over the then Chinese capital.
Of course, what’s even more sensitive about the subject matter is that the debate about the nature of the atrocities is still a significant point of contention between many Chinese and Japanese, and that often lends a certain degree of bias and subjectivity in the presentation of the events from both sides.
With that said, if you understand a little bit about the history of the Second Sino-Japanese War just before the outbreak of World War II, and the legacy of the Nanjing Massacre in particular, this movie can make for a very moving watch, with a combination of devastating and harrowing depiction of wartime atrocities crossed with stunning human emotion as the innocent people of the city are terrorised.
Throughout, the film really doesn’t hold back when it comes to showing the grittier, more brutal side of war and occupation, and it’s as such not a particularly recommended watch for the faint of heart. However, while the film is graphic in its violence and more, it’s generally presented in a solemn manner that looks upon the history with deep regret, rather than hyping up the violence to make things seem more blockbuster.
And that’s what really impressed me about City Of Life And Death, the fact that it is a very elegant piece that keeps its emotions in check, and does an excellent job at giving a fair and moving portrayal of the horrors seen in Nanjing during the winter of 1937, with no excessively loud or garish action sequences, and a lot of due focus on the more intense emotional impact that the terrifying atrocities had on the hundreds of thousands of inhabitants in the city.
And yet, while the film rightly criticises and puts to shame the dreadful actions of the Japanese army that initiated the rape and pillaging of the entire city, it’s not a film that overtly relies on a jingoistic, Japanese-hating point of view, something that comes through particularly clearly in the presentation of one Japanese soldier who looks on in confusion and ultimately despair as his colleagues commit a series of unthinkable crimes against innocent people all over the city.
That fairness to show that there was humanity in parts of the Japanese ranks, and rather than portraying the invaders as one-dimensional, faceless enemies, it’s a very bold and admirable move to lend some focus to a side that you would often not expect to receive any sympathy whatsoever when reassessing such a harrowing history.
Of course, the main point of the film is to show you just how terrible the atrocities committed in Nanjing were, and it does just that in harrowing fashion throughout, with a haunting portrayal of a beautiful city reduced to rubble, descending into a soulless hellscape where there is almost no safe haven – with even the international refugee zone under constant threat from takeover by the occupiers.
Its black-and-white cinematography lends another level of depth to that portrayal of the city, and particularly in the film’s opening act, the city itself is our main character, as we see her inhabitants rounded up and forced to live in constant terror, while she descends further and further into chaos, with the landscape of rubble and ruined buildings as far as the eye can see fully cementing the city as hell on Earth.
All in all, City Of Life And Death is a very moving and powerful film that definitely isn’t for the faint-hearted. However, if I were to have one problem with it, it would be the fact that, while deep and emotional in its portrayal of the history, there isn’t quite enough character focus throughout to keep things thoroughly engrossing at every moment.
Of course, Christopher Nolan proved with Dunkirk that character depth isn’t always necessary for a stunning war film, but City Of Life And Death doesn’t have the breakneck pacing of Dunkirk, and is more comparable to the likes of Saving Private Ryan or Enemy At The Gates, both of which are more character-focused stories.
That’s not to say that there are no characters, as we focus on both a Japanese soldier who looks on with regret at the war crimes being committed before his very eyes, as well as the locals and international workers who are striving to keep the civilians safe from further massacre by the invading troops. However, with next to no dialogue during the first half, and a pace that lulls from time to time, it’s a little hard to really connect with those characters until about an hour and a half in, where the final act picks their story up well and runs with it to the end.
Overall, then, City Of Life And Death is an undoubtedly impressive film. With its stunning and harrowing portrayal of one of the worst war crimes in modern history, furthered by a level-headed and elegant approach to presenting such a sensitive and still controversial history, it’s an engrossing and powerful watch throughout. What’s more, its exceptional cinematography and portrayal of a city in ruins adds further depth and emotion to proceedings, and although it doesn’t quite manage to engross you in its characters to full potential, it proves a thoroughly impressive watch nonetheless, which is why I’m giving it a 7.6.