City of Life and Death (Lu Chuan, 2009). Most war films depend on the physical movement of bodies, bullets, and explosions to expose the horrors of combat. But Lu Chuan’s City of Life and Death, a black-and-white nightmare about the notorious Rape of Nanking by the invading Japanese army in 1938, communicates the impact of both overt atrocities and interior heartbreaks entirely through facial expressions, specifically via the eyes of each main character. Throughout the opening battle scene between the last remaining Chinese soldiers and the better equipped Japanese army, there’s an emphasis on perspective and point-of-view shots, a nonverbal back and forth between soldiers that reverts the filmmaking back to a more primal form of communication. Afterward, when the countless executions and rapes begin, dialogue remains minimally restrained to the necessary pleas for salvation and fair treatment. Instead of dialogue, Chuan advances the narrative through potent and piercing off-screen sound design, alluding to the exponential victims just beyond the frame.
With these minimalist aesthetics in mind, City of Life and Death becomes a film concerned with the moments before and after traumatic events, like when a group of Chinese women are asked to sacrifice their dignity and bed down with Japanese soldiers, or when a small boy clings to his father’s hand immediately before a firing squad wipes out thousands of Chinese prisoners. Aside from the haunted faces of the tortured Chinese inhabitants, Chuan also suggests the humanity in one Japanese soldier named Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi), who bares witness to many of the devastating acts from the fringe of the frame. Interestingly, the audience often gets the same point of view as Kadokawa, positioning us alongside the Japanese forces decimating legions of innocents. During the most difficult moments of City of Life and Death, the confrontation between fledgling acts of humanity and the unimaginable horrors of reality becomes a core conflict that never gets resolved. The elaborate visual overlap of smoke, fire, dirt, blood, ash, and tears adds a physical texture to Chuan’s sweeping and disjointed mosaic, a layer of symbolic soot that can never be wiped away. City of Life and Death draws out the suffering and Sophie’s Choice-like confrontations a bit much late in the film, but Kadakawa’s final sacrifice is a stunner, a self-inflicted reminder that history’s winners can’t always live with the cost of victory.
71: Into the Fire (John H. Lee, 2010). A completely different kind of war film than Chuan’s, 71: Into the Fire is propaganda at its finest, classically depicting the sacrifice of valiant youth for the greater national good. Directed by John H. Lee, the film tells the story of a the South Korean student soldier platoon who defended a key position from the advancing North Korean army during the early days of the Korean War. The young men are left to bunker down in a girl’s middle school while their superiors go fight a key battle some hours away. Of course, the powerful North Koreans shift course and head right for the school, beginning a series of lightning quick shoot-outs that lead up to one last epic combat set piece between David and Goliath. The film is a narrative throw back to John Wayne’s The Alamo, showing an undermanned group of rag tag soldiers prepare, train, and fend off wave after wave of enemy troops. Even the differing personalities, their conversations, and inevitable reversals of attitude are letter perfect with many war film forefathers.
Stylistically, the film is greatly influenced by its Korean blood brother Tae Guk Gi, as every frame within the bookend battle sequences explodes fragments and limbs from all angles. Bullets and shrapnel don’t just penetrate the body they tear it to shreds. Yet what makes 71: Into the Fire so interesting are the performances by its talented young cast, who actually look the part of scared but brave teenagers thrust into the intense confines of warfare. When these boys start to kill and be killed, the genuine connection between them transcends cliché. Even though genre conventions surround their every move, the honesty and vulnerability of these characters convinces the viewer that their sacrifice is worthy of our attention. While a completely safe and effective slice of historical revisionism, 71: Into the Fire brings a surprising element of humanity to the proceedings, even if the final volley of machine gun bravery and outlandish heroics feels completely unbelievable. But that’s Hollywood, Korean-style.
The San Diego Asian Film Festival runs from October 21 to 28. For more information, click here.