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Kino International (#110 of 3)

Film Comment Selects 2011: City of Life and Death

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Film Comment Selects 2011: <em>City of Life and Death</em>
Film Comment Selects 2011: <em>City of Life and Death</em>

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.