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City of Life and Death

City of Life and Death

With "City of Life and Death," the brilliant Chinese director Lu Chuan makes his third, most ambitious and powerful film, a war saga of epic proportions that depicts in impressive detail every aspect and every group of the 1937 Japanese occupation and massacre of Nanking.

Among other distinctions, the aptly titled film describes the largely untold story of the defiant Chinese resisters who refused to bow down in defeat. As such, the movie joins the small league of cinematic war masterpieces about the human price and devastating effects of battle and occupation.

I saw this striking, haunting movie at the 2009 Cannes Film Fest and highly recommend that you see it on the big screen, when National Geographic releases the film in spring of 2010. A record-breaking hit with audiences in China and other countries, this landmark movie deserves to be seen in the U.S. and it's recommended that it be shown in history classes in high schools and colleges.

In a recent interview, director Lu described his goal: "There's something big and powerful inside the Nanking story and it is something that survives in our nation but has long been neglected. I am trying to let the audience feel that every victim was once so alive and vigorous." The massacre in Nanking in December of 1937 is considered by many historians to be among the world's worst instances of civilian suffering and death under enemy occupation. Although there's controversy about the numbers, some experts estimate that between 200,000 and 300,000 people (many of them women and children) were killed during the siege of the city, while thousands of women were victims of sexual assault as a weapon.

The film's greatness derives from its ambitious scope and execution, both dramatic and technical, finding the right balance between the depiction of events and battles with the personal stories of a reasonably small number of characters through which the viewers can experience viscerally a tumultuous time and place, whicht are still little known to non-Asian, particularly Western viewers.

Masterfully shot in black and white, often using handheld cameras, by director of photography Cao Yu, the film boasts a visceral, almost impressionistic visual style, a mix of stripped-bare close-ups of family and community juxtaposed against awesome landscapes of destruction of a once-beautiful and vibrant city.

Set within the walled, occupied Chinese region, "City of Life and Death" also strikes a timeless, universal chord in offering a vivid, multi-dimensional portrait of the pain, suffering, humiliation and death, but also the tenacity, courage, sacrifice, dignity, and communion that often prevail side-by-side when humans are pushed to the brink by the terrors of wars. Indeed, the depiction of historical events and characters is not just about two conflicting nations, but about individuals, caught in the hellish madness of a war that while uprooting their lives, also exposes their strengths and their weaknesses.

Like all great war epics, the aptly titled saga goes beyond the battle zone to offer a look at the city's various groups of people, women and children, senior citizens, soldiers and prisoners, occupiers and collaborators, national patriots and foreigners. Space doesn't permit me to dwell on every character or event, but suffice is to say that at the end of this emotional experience, you'll get an overall view of the 1937 events, some of which have been recorded in documentaries but never before with such vivid and personal realization.

This multi-hued collage begins as the Imperial Japanese Army captures, in 1937, Nanking, the wartime capital of the Republic of China. In stark imagery, Lu Chuan unfolds the fate of the city. The first persona introduced is Lu Jian Jong (Liu Ye), a fearless Chinese soldier who fights to defend his hometown, but, alas the city disastrously falls along with his platoon. Surrender is imminent, but Lu Jian Jong chooses to continue to resist the attack.

Resonant images of occupation and a city under siege follow, from the toppling of statues (that brings to mind the recent one of Saddam Hussein in Iraq) to the defiant cries of those who refuse to give up their freedom. A ordinary, homesick Japanese soldier, Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi), becomes a distraught participant in a shocking civilian massacre, which leaves him with lingering doubts about his nationalistic pride and loyalty, which forbids the expression of emotions or mercy to interfere with duty.

As the fury of the military battle slows down, we begin to sort a portrait of the people of Nanking, as each engages in a fierce struggle for survival. Among them are Mr. Tang (Fan Wei), a devoted, frightened family man and secretary to the German businessman John Rabe (John Paisley), who at first becomes a Japanese collaborator, risking the lives of others in the hopes of protecting his wife and child, only to discover the courage to make an extraordinary sacrifice for the greater good.

Rabe himself, who is the subject of the recent German film "John Rabe," tries to use his status as a business leader and Nazi party member to negotiate a way to keep 300,000 Chinese refugees safe from harm in an International Safety Zone, boldly demarcated in the center of the city. Watching him inevitably brings to mind Oskar Schindler, the subject of several books, documentaries, and of Spielberg's 1993 Oscar-winning film, "Schindler's List."

Among the refugees is the young and beautiful schoolteacher Jiang Shuyun (Gao Yuanyuan), who emerges as an unlikely heroine, battling for justice for the weak and the lost among the refugees. Another young woman, the prostitute Xiao Jiang (Jiang Yiyan), makes the staggering choice to volunteer as a "comfort women" when the Japanese insist that 100 women from the conquered must serve their soldiers, or they will kill more civilians and allow their children to die from hunger and cold.

Considering the context, the movie, dedicated to the memory of all those who died, end on a hopeful note. While conditions deteriorate in the city, and the Japanese ritualistically march through Nanking in a ceremonial victory dance, there are signs of the city's gradual renewal, signs that eventually the children of Nanking will rebuild their home.

Unfolding as a series of raw intimate moments, "City of Life and Death" has great cumulative power, a reflection of the multiple dimensions and devastating moral choices made during the Japanese-Chinese wartime, depicted with painstaking attention to detail in realistic yet poetic style.

The Nanking story takes place at exactly the same time when American society was preoccupied with the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, the Hindenburg disaster, Edward VIII's abdicating his throne for Wallis Simpson, the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge, Italy aligning with Germany, Time Magazine naming Hitler its Man of the Year, and the premiere of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." Events in China were given little attention amidst the escalating fears of a Europe at war.

— Emanuel Levy, EmanuelLevy.Com

City of Life and Death

Thu April 14, 2011, 7:00 & 9:30, Muenzinger Auditorium

China, 2009, Mandarin/English, B&W, 132 min., Not Rated, 35mm, 2.35:1 • official site

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