Music Feature

Film Review: City of Life and Death

by Piers Marchant
Chuan Lu's haunting vision is a real-life portrait of hell on earth.

Dir. Chuan Lu
Score: 6.8

You know you're in for heavy misery when the lone Nazi in the film represents the bastion of hope and compassion, but such is the case in Chuan Lu's dramatic account of the infamous Japanese destruction and desecration of Nanking, the Chinese capital, in the early days of what would become WWII.

The Nazi is John Rabe (John Paisley), in Nanking during the 1937 Japanese assault as a special emissary from der F├╝hrer. Under his care, a small section of the city is carved out as a safe zone for refugees after the Imperial Army routs the Chinese defenders and conducts mass executions of practically every other of-age male in the city. The problem is, many of the Japanese soldiers don't respect the boundary and conduct periodic raids of the women, dragging them off for brutal raping sessions for days and weeks on end. Despite Rabe's best efforts, he cannot protect the civilians, including his own secretary, Mr. Tang (Wei Fan), whose wife (Lan Qin) and daughter he tries to safeguard by providing what turns out to be damning intel to the Japanese.

Just about no one comes out of this hellishly brutal occupation unscathed: The Chinese are wiped out, the remaining soldiers beating a hasty retreat and leaving the city practically defenseless; the Japanese are shown to be every bit as sadistic and evil-minded as practically every other occupying force in human history; and the Japanese commanders appear unable or unwilling to curtail their soldiers' tremendously blood-thirsty and atrocious behavior. The victims, and they are vast -- some 300,000 -- are mostly the innocent Chinese citizens who happened to get in the way of Japan's failed imperial march to becoming a world superpower.

Chuan Lu's film is graphic and visceral, as it almost has to be in order to touch on the very real horror visited upon the innocent men, women and children of Nanking. His handheld camera fixes on the expressions of the victorious soldiers and civilian victims in equal counts, daring you to turn away. And you will be tempted: the film, while never gratuitous, displays shootings, drowning, beheadings, many rapes, and, perhaps most sickeningly, the joyful expressions of the perpetrators as they inflict this horror on their fellow man.

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