Reviews - City Of Life And Death
City Of Life And Death
Reviewed By John Stakes
In recreating the events of any particular war whether in documentary form or fictional reconstruction, the essential artistic skill of the filmmaker lies in the ability to create an honest, faithful, non-sentimentalised, accurate and propaganda-free portrayal of these events, stripped of any glamorisation. At the same time the director must be able to generate in his audience a willingness both to accept, or at least tolerate, the necessary graphic images of carnage and brutality, and seek out and understand the film’s purpose and truth. It’s a matter of sensitivity and balance.
Implicit in all this is a duty of care, the bar for which must be set at its highest when it is not merely the horror of war itself which is depicted but the atrocities committed in its name.
The centre-piece of last Sunday’s film by 39 years old Chinese writer-director LuChuan was the rape of Nanking which took place over a six week period during the 1937 2nd Sino-Japanese war. Nanking was China’s temporary capital at that time and totally unable to withstand Japan’s invasion the object of which was to harvest China’s rich mineral reserves. The film focuses on the plight of the remnants of the Chinese army, and the civilian and refugee population holed up in the city
immediately after the invasion. Reputedly some three hundred thousand were slaughtered.
In bringing to life these horrors of death Lu Chuan unflinchingly let these events unfold at a measured pace but with a hand-held often jostling camera lensed in monochrome which captured the inglorious uncertainty of lives being lived on a minute by minute basis, and reinforced the authenticity of the settings and drama. Judicious editing tellingly revealed faces etched with despair and hands lifted or clasped in hope or support.
This director never veered towards sentimentality or nationalistic indignation. He even introduced the perspective of the Japanese soldier and, in the later stages, his commanding officer, the former suffering from self doubt from the outset and later trauma, the latter becoming sufficiently influenced by the dignity shown by a German humanitarian assistant he is about to have shot, that he later decides to release a resistance fighter and boy.
The human dimension of the film is reflected in the lives of but half a dozen characters. There’s Liu Ye as the resistance fighter. Fan Wei is the German humanitarian assistant Tang and Qin Lan his wife. Gao Yuanyuan is a refugee camp survivor risking her life to save others only to lose her own. Hideo Nakaizumi plays the Japanese soldier. John Paisley is John Rabe, a German businessman in charge of the refugee compound who is ordered back to Germany for having undermined
German relations with Japan by befriending Nanking’s residents, which puts the survival of the camp at risk. Most of the characters are fictitious but contextualised perfectly. Rabe was real enough and the brutal events well catalogued.
The film’s pitch and balance were exemplary. The graphic passages were both compelling and restrained. The scenes not only naturalistically flowed but the measured pacing created the intense effect that the viewer was also a witness. The attempts by the captives to maintain their dignity whilst subjected to gross indignity were heart-wrenching. Fleeting moments of humour created light relief and underscored the cruelty. This was not so much an anti-war film but a testimony to the
irrationality of war and what a confounding experience it is to all involved.
City of Life and Death is the first attempt to recreate this shocking period in China’s history. Lu Chuan’s achievement has been to produce one of the most profoundly moving, humbling and unforgettable experiences in world cinema, and a fitting reminder of the redoubtable nature of the human spirit. A film everyone should experience.
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