Perhaps the most significant thing about City of Life and Death is that American viewers will finally get the chance to see it. A box office hit in its native China, Lu Chuan’s divisive epic about the Nanking massacre courted enormous controversy almost from the start. Pulled from Chinese theaters over an uproar about, among other things, the movie’s positive treatment of a central Japanese character, the picture was similarly yanked just weeks before its scheduled New York debut at Film Forum following stalled negotiations between the film’s then-U.S. distributor, National Geographic Entertainment, and the Chinese Film Board. Newly acquired by Kino International, City of Life and Death is now set for a May 2011 release following its New York debut at Film Comment Selects.
But is the film worth all the hassle? Clearly the depiction of a perennially touchy historical event remains a sore spot for a Chinese nation seeking to reinvent itself as a world power, but for the American viewer, it unfolds as one more mediocre historical epic, combining black-and-white Scope photography, half-drawn character sketches that edge toward the sentimental, and enough acts of brutality to insist on the significance of its own content. And while certainly no one would deny the significance of a brutal occupation that resulted in the murders of up to 300,000 people and the rape of tens of thousands of women, Lu’s film, unlike other recent movies dealing with the same events (even the forgettable John Rabe was far more intellectually curious), is stubbornly uninterested in historical analysis, only in dramatization.
The film’s this-is-what-happened approach is nonetheless tempered by a questionable strategy of aestheticization. There’s little debate about the quality of the limpid grayscale photography, evident from the time we glom the early image of the city gate set afire and a subsequent series of shots of besieged Nanking’s beautiful rubble. Depositing us in the center of the action with little establishing context, Lu alternates between deftly composed, eye-filling compositions and quick-cut camera-bobbing close-ups, the latter for the scenes of skirmishes between the Imperial Japanese army and the Chinese nationalists. But since most of the action consists not of international warfare between two fairly matched sides, but of cold-blooded murder and rape, the film raises some unavoidable questions about its own representational choices.
It’s never an easy matter to depict atrocity on screen, particularly of the historical variety. On one hand, the force of the events must leave its impact on the viewer and not devolve into the stuff of easily digestible melodrama. On the other hand, the filmmaker must avoid the temptation to linger too long on images of brutality, taking his film into exploitation territory. Unfortunately, Lu is not particularly successful at walking this tenuous line, falling at times into both traps. A crane up over a soldier’s head to reveal what looks like an abstract expressionist canvas of dead bodies is just one particularly egregious example of aestheticization as exploitation, while the few tentative stabs the filmmakers take at individuating the characters tend to sentimentalize rather than merely humanize the drama. One line of particularly unpalatable melodrama finds Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi), a good-hearted young Imperial soldier losing his virginity to a Japanese “comfort girl” with whom he quickly falls in love. Later, he finds the same woman in the makeshift brothel in which the Japanese army has impressed Chinese and Korean girls to join their Nipponese counterparts in forced prostitution. While Kadokawa looks on, his lover is taken by another soldier and Lu alternates close-ups of the would-be couple, the man’s face visibly troubled, the woman’s head rocking back and forth under the force of the other soldier’s pounding, while a small smear of blood appears at the corner of her lip.
Mostly, though, what the film evokes is the morality-effacing brutality of war in a series of scenes that are both too staid and too self-consciously kinetic. People are getting shot every which way, everyone’s screaming, but at the same time, the whole thing unfolds largely in cool, restrained black-and-white imagery and to people who are barely characterized as individuals. Which is to say, when Lu’s not milking the material for facile viewer revulsion, his film’s boring. In the end, it’s hard to say which is worse: Imagining history as a vaguely sentimental spectacle of atrocity or as hazy, unexamined chaos.
City of Life and Death will play on February 25 as part of this year’s Film Comment Selects series. To purchase tickets, click here.