City of Life and Death (Chuan Lu, 2009): China/Hong Kong

Reviewed by Zi Huang. Viewed at Mann Chinese Theater 6 in Hollywood during the AFI Film Festival, 2009.

The Chinese historical war film City of Life and Death (also named Nanking! Nanking!) is significant for me because I am a Chinese. I had been proud of the film and the director Lu Chuan because the movie was chose to release in an international film festival in Hollywood. That’s sort of a highly regard to the film itself, and also to the Chinese film industry.

I heard of City of Life and Death when I came back China for summer vocation four months ago. It was showing in the theaters in China at the time, but I was not interested in it because historical war is not an attractive subject matter for me. So I chose to watch Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and Rise of Cobra instead of City of Life and Death. However, it just freaked me out when I saw the Chinese film on the list of the films in the festival, and then I finally watched it in the United States.

The story set in 1937 when the Japanese army attacked China during World War II. It depicts the event the Nanking Massacre which always shocks the world by the great number of killing about 300,000 Chinese soldiers and civilians were killed by Japanese troops. The film is not focused on the fight, but the life of the Chinese refugees and the Japanese soldiers, the ruthless murder, the crazy rapine and the nasty rape. I was not too shocked to see those scenes of the savage and violent behavior because I had watched too many historical war documentaries about Japanese invading my country then since I was a student in elementary school in China. It was no longer a fresh stuff for me, but I still felt sad to see how my compatriots were killed with no mercy in the film.

I was surprised at the incredibly amazing mise-en-scene set in the film because it presents a spectacle for a dead city in ruins with dead bodies all around. In addition, I have lots of impression on the sequence that the refugee camp has to choose 100 women and hand over them to the Japanese Army for comforting the soldiers. When the German consul man and Miss Jiang who are in charge in the camp tell the refugees that is the only way to save the refugee camp and the refugees, a girl in her twenties raise her hand and says unperturbedly, “I will go.” Hands are raised one after another. It is really a moving scene to promote my emotional patriotism. I believed some Chinese audiences who were watching in the theater cried out when saw this sequence.

I was also surprised at the arrangement of a Japanese soldier Kadokawa who feels ashamed to kill Chinese people. He is even shocked by himself when he shot the door which some women are hiding behind for stopping the chaos crowd. “I didn’t mean that,” he says sacredly. He also helps Miss Jiang to finish her life, otherwise she will be raped violently. In the end, he let two Chinese prisoners go who is suppose to be killed, and he shoots himself right after because he feels ashamed and can’t stand for keeping killing. This character makes the film not too subjective that not only presents Chinese people’s points of view of the war but also some Japanese soldiers’. That’s why I would strongly recommend this historical war film.

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