“City of Life and Death” dramatizes the Nanking massacre with a focus on the war mentality that causes otherwise decent people to commit the kinds of horrors that happened in this 1937 tragedy.
Chinese writer-director Lu Chuan (“Kekexili, Mountain Patrol”) aims high, both creating an epic-scale remembrance of the Nanking events and adding an ambitious war picture to the catalog. In both arenas, the film is extraordinary.
For those needing a history brush-up, the Nanking massacre occurred during the second Sino-Japanese war when Japanese troops conquered Nanking (China’s then-capital) and slaughtered an estimated 300,000 soldiers and civilians and raped countless women.
Juxtaposing the sweeping with the intimate, and shifting between Japanese and Chinese perspectives, Lu depicts these events, beginning with the taking of Nanking by Japanese soldiers and then showing Chinese soldiers, including Shunzi (Yisui Zhao) and a boy named Xiaodouzi (Bin Liu), trying to fight off attackers. A litany of horrors — mass shootings, gang rapes, soldiers buried alive — follows.
The personal stories of sacrifice, cowardice and unexpected heroism and humanity often involve Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi), a Japanese sergeant troubled by the brutality.
On the Chinese side, Mr. Tang (Fan Wei) naively thinks his employment with fact-based German businessman John Rabe (John Paisley) will keep him and his family protected.
Brave schoolteacher Miss Jiang (Gao Yuanyuan) also works in the misleadingly titled safety zone Rabe oversees.
Because it takes a while to keep track of who’s who, the drama isn’t immediately gripping. But it ultimately triumphs.
Based on both Chinese and Japanese testimonies, the film, which has been controversial in China due to Lu’s sympathetic portrayal of the Kadokawa character, is both a superb grand-scale picture of the horror of war and an emotionally credible and engrossing reminder of this modern Chinese tragedy.
A gifted visual storyteller, Lu delivers striking imagery. Severed male heads and a cart full of naked female corpses (“comfort women” forced to work at the brothel) are particularly haunting.
The drama ends with a moment of uplift that may be a sign of Lu’s hope for the species, or perhaps Lu’s way of thanking viewers for sticking with all that’s preceded it.
If you go
Starring: Liu Ye, Hideo Nakaizumi, Fan Wei, Gao Yuanyuan
Written and directed by: Lu Chuan
Running time: 2 hours, 13 minutes