The six-week-long Rape of Nanjing is said to have claimed no fewer than 20,000 victims of rape and as many as 300,000 total casualties, though the Imperial Army's habit of destroying its records has prevented an official, agreed-upon figure from being reached. A low point not only in Sino-Japanese relations but humanity as a whole, the event would seem impossible to portray as anything more than a prolonged travesty. City of Life and Death manages to do just that. The materials it works with are dark indeed (the abandoned city as battlefield, a desperate arena where every inch is potentially lethal and every inhabitant a frightened creature with no long-term goal beyond survival), but Chinese writer-director Lu Chuan allows for the occasional glimmer of hope to shine through as well. This film is often chaotic, but not in the overwrought manner others of its ilk tend to be. Instead, it's strangely (and eerily) quiet, with soldiers carrying out orders from officers they've never met and civilians attempting to eke out whatever existence the rubble and shadow allow. Lu sees this all in grayscale, a stylistic choice befitting the pervading sorrow throughout.
The lower-ranking Japanese soldiers with whom we spend a good amount of our time are, for the most part, presented as out of their depth rather than specifically malevolent. One scene finds them firing into a closed door in order to frighten the refugees in the room with them, only to be horrified upon realizing they've murdered several people. In a situation like this, Lu implies more than once, survival trumps honor. But he's no apologist either; he simply decides to explore his characters rather than vilify them outright. (This objective portrayal resulted in the film almost being pulled from theaters in mainland China and Lu receiving death threats online.) This evenhandedness is particularly commendable given the sensitive nature of the subject matter, but City of Life and Death's hyper-real aspirations are sometimes so self-contained that it's difficult to gain a sense of the bigger picture, should there be one at all. This may be thought of in one of two ways: as an often strived-for, rarely-reached level of accuracy, or as a failure to go beyond depiction and into subtext and depth. Lu seems so concerned with giving his subjects a proper sendoff through film that he forgets to craft a larger, more comprehensive vision around them. The brutality and horror of the events themselves, which are indeed devastating, are meant to be enough to sway us, but Lu misses an opportunity to use them as a starting point rather than an end in and of themselves. A film of such violence—and, in its own way, hopefulness—would do well to subtly convey an inner life teeming beneath, but Lu opts to glide along the surface instead. As a semi-historical document, it works; as compelling drama, it leaves something to be desired.
There's no shortage of grimness here: faces hidden behind gas masks pass severed heads strewn about on power wires as they march through corpse-littered streets, casually executing passersby along the way; the senseless defenestration of a small child; 100 women from the refugee camp volunteering as prostitutes for the Japanese in exchange for basic necessities; and so on. As the lines between skirmish, battle, and massacre are blurred, death and dying become increasingly commonplace. This is humanity at its worst, and it isn't given justification by way of reference to external events. City of Life and Death exists seemingly apart from the rest of the world, turning a sprawling city into a claustrophobic death camp. What bravery or heroism exists—and it's certainly there to be found—comes in small, fleeting moments that Lu does well not to linger over. The film would seem almost nihilistic were its inherent darkness not tempered by such moments, but, even so, its lighter shades don't ultimately add up to much more than some semblance of a counterbalance.
Not every defeat involves a loss of life. Sometimes it simply entails young women being forced to cut their hair, a precautionary measure meant or protect them from the threat of rape by diminishing the femininity of their outer appearance, or the splitting up of a family. With each such act, however, Lu traces the slow decline of his characters' happiness—indeed, their very humanity. The cross-section of men and women from every side of the conflict whose experiences in Nanjing the film documents may ultimately be said to be in the same boat insofar as a great many of them end up dead or lessened as human beings. Those who emerge with some semblance of their soul intact are the exception to a devastating rule. "Life is more difficult than death," says one of City of Life and Death's chief sowers of misery and discord; usually no more than dime-store wisdom, the line is strangely apropos of Lu's film. That the word "life" is even included in the title says just as much: To not focus exclusively on death in so bleak a story as this betrays a subtle strain of optimism which, though not enough to make up for the overall flatness of this film, takes a step toward defining its intentions.
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The many tragedies depicted in City of Life and Death are only amplified by how evocatively they're captured by Cao Yu's black-and-white cinematography. Kino's 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer brings this haunting imagery—which was filmed in color on 35mm and then converted—into extremely sharp focus while maintaining a certain softness as well. A genuine spatial environment, the film subtly flexes its visual and aural muscles when dust floats through the sunbeams of a wrecked building as voices echo throughout. Stylistically, this restraint works better than it does in terms of story.
Sparing but worthwhile. The only feature other than some trailers and a still gallery is a nearly two-hour-long documentary on the making of City of Life and Death. The piece, presented in standard-definition, is something of a double-edged sword in that it offers certain insights that don't come across as clearly in the film itself as they should. While helpful in one regard, this ultimately makes one think of the film more as it could have been than as it actually is.
City of Life and Death's surface is harrowingly beautiful, but it doesn't provide enough ground to glide along for over two hours.