City of Life and Death (China, 2009)

In December of 1937, the Japanese army captured the city of Nanjing, early on in the Second Sino-Japanese War. In the brutal weeks that followed, hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers and civilians were killed.

Written and directed by Lu Chuan, City of Life and Death (also known as Nanking! Nanking!) recreates of the siege of Nanjing in 1938, six weeks which saw the murder and rape of thousands of Chinese civilians, which is depicted here in unflinchingly graphic detail over the course of its two hour running time. Epic in terms of its fimmaking – at times this is so well shot and technically excellent that it becomes a thing of hideous beauty, as if  age old photographs have been brought back to life – City of Life and Death is nonetheless a grueling experience. Barely held together by a narrative structure, the film instead at times seems to become a relentlessly bleak montage of atrocities. The film largely reflects the experiences from three main perspectives – a Chinese soldier, a Chinese civilian and a Japanese soldier. It’s through the perspective of the Japanese soldier that the film proved controversial upon its domestic release, for ‘humanising’ at least one of the men responsible for the events at Nanjing. It’s certainly one of the most interesting considerations of the piece that what is presented here from both a historical point of view as well as – most interestingly – from a modern political point of view managed to pass the required demands of the Chinese censors to be made and released. City of Life and Death may sound like a surprising experience in this respect, but don’t expect to see a complex study of war with layered characterisations of people who fought in it.  For the most part, the running time is devoted to the continuous brutalities.

On one hand, it’s difficult to understand what may have been the point of City of Life and Death, other than to bring the fairly unaddressed incident (Japan has never acknowledged many of the events that took place) back into public view and to create discussion, which it has succeeded in doing. As a historical event, it’s certainly important and, as a cinematic one, it feels like a brave step.  It’s just that when the film is isolated in itself, it doesn’t seem to do much more than underline the hideousness of the acts of the soldiers and with the briefest humanising of the some of the men. Well, at least one of the Japanese soldiers. Maybe it’s too much to ask, and maybe more films will follow, but City of Life and Death doesn’t present a response to the events at Nanjing as its more focused on preserving them, and so its a fairly detached experience. For all of the beaten and dead bodies, there’s little human connection.

At 132 minutes long, City of Life and Death is exhausting. At first, it feels a little difficult to follow – not the least because dividing some of the scenes are some particularly difficult to read title cards which appear all too briefly (keep the remote control handy and use the ‘pause’ button) – but it does soon find a pace as it unrelentlessly moves through events. It’s best to allow yourself to be pulled along, as you’re not given the chance to decipher every character, scene or moment, and the film is short on dialogue. The scale is nothing short of breathtaking, though.  The cinematography is stunning and, as wrong as this may sound, is what you want to see from a war film: scenes are compiled as series of events with the cinematography forcing different perspectives in terms of the differences between movement of groups or individuals, highlighting the way the city itself becomes a prison and helping to capture the startling difference between panicked movement and eerie stillness.

City of Life and Death is well worth a viewing. It’s not a pleasant experience (‘experience’ being a word that I’ve used several times in this review, but it best sums a viewing) and it’s not one that you would particularly look forward to returning to – although, personally, I feel like I owe it another viewing. As a depiction and acknowledgement of the brutal events that took place, it’s powerful stuff with the keen eye for detail that you would usually expect in a documentary rather than your typical ‘war’ film. There’s little reflection on the events that occur; they’re left to speak for themselves, and by intentionally foregoing a strong narrative throughline, the film is ultimately left to be interpreted by the viewer.

Martin Cleary likes egg-custard pies, has a caffeine habit and is tall. He also writes words for New Korean Cinema and has mumbled his way through episodes on ‘What’s Korean Cinema?’ for the Podcast On Fire Network.