In memorializing a traumatic event in modern Chinese history, the conquest of the capital city of Nanking in December 1937 and the attendant atrocities committed by members of the invading Japanese army, writer-director Lu Chuan's City of Life and Death navigates the tropes of wartime docudrama with familiar reverence but an inexorable tug of horror. Using epic scale, black-and-white widescreen spectacle, and breakneck editing for the blistering urban warfare that dominates the film's first third, Lu employs a half-dozen heterogeneous major characters to humanize the ghastly record of the mass rapes, civilian slaughter, and summary executions that took place in the fallen city. Solemn and mournful, with no room for comic relief, the screenplay is full of archetypes and motifs recycled from the century-old image bank of war cinema, but by often keeping dialogue minimal and emphasizing the enormity of Nanking's tragedy with scenes thronged with extras (most awfully when an execution of seeming thousands makes a ripple of fallen bodies across the frame like an ocean wave), the filmmakers keep the focus on the historical cruelty, stumbling into mawkish clichés only in the final sequences.
Operating in a more demanding, ambitious mode than in his sleek poaching thriller Kekexili: Mountain Patrol, Lu must have felt the weight of interpreting a storied national tragedy in only his third feature film, and notwithstanding the technical means by which he creates a disturbing and vivid picture of Nanking's six weeks of sexual assaults and massacres, City of Life and Death doesn't take the extra step of pondering the causes of the sadistic frenzy; it just is.
A young, virginal soldier, Sergeant Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi), is a figure of empathy who silently recoils at his comrades' barbarism, but as no other Japanese are etched in anything but two-dimensional strokes, Kadokawa's compassion carries an aura of well-intentioned tokenism. The iconic playing of the principals on the victimized side—a heroic platoon leader (Liu Ye), a glamorous Gao Yuanyuan's teacher-turned-leader of the refugee committee in the city's "safety zone," a timid family man (Fan Wei) who discovers that his protected status as secretary to a German businessman is entirely illusory—burnishes the moral outrage of the film, but occasionally descends into movieland banality, as when a prisoner about to suffer punishment worse than death evenly pleads "Shoot me" to Kadokawa, or in the closing image of a child blowing a pussy willow into the wind. But from his opening scrum of Chinese would-be deserters barreling in terror into a wall of loyal troops, to firefights in smoky rubble and the sickening creak of bedsprings in criminal "comfort" brothels, Lu's picture of cumulative inhumanity has unflinching, nightmarish strength.