History wore a human face in City of Life and Death

Directed/screenplay by Lu Chuan | Drama 132 min

© Julie O’Yang

Nanking! Nanking!, or City of Life and Death, is the 3rd feature by Lu Chuan, my absolute No. 1 favourite director of the New Chinese Cinema. Why? Because he is an independent and courageous mind. You never catch Lu flirt with the comfortable Orientalism made famous by veterans such as Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern), neither does he seek refuge in the quasi modesty with which about every Chinese person on the planet would tell you it is his upbringing. Lu is grand, painfully compelling and emotional without trotting out the old saw, which promises not only a challenging, provocative cinematographic ride: it will undoubtedly lead to controversy in the PRC.

Something old

The Second World War started in Asia. Troubled by a long term economic depression, Japan’s military regime sought a solution and found a problem. The goal and deluding oxygen was to subjugate China in order to propel the country into a false future of expansionism and imperialism. In 1931 the Emperor, Tenno Hiroshito bypassed the parliamentary procedure and gave direct order to the Japanese Imperial Army to invade Manchuria. However, Japan would still wait until July 1937, when the carefully staged Marco Polo Bridge Incident took place near Beiping. The Empire of the Sun officially declared war against China and the rest of the world. In November the Imperial Army took Shanghai. One month later, Nanking, the then Chinese capital was abandoned by Chiang Kai-shek and his goverment. Our story starts from this point in time. The Massacre of Nanking — also known as The Rape of Nanking — the forgotten Holocaust of a globally fought war. If you are expecting some bloody extravaganza a la Saving Private Ryan, I ask you to change your perception filter. The director made an unexpected and clever choice to tell his story in black-and–white, not without a reason. The camera is sober and sedate, exuding the magical calm to transport you to another time and place that is genuine and convincing. Everything is so UNBEARABLY “real”, as if one is watching a documentary.

Something new

Nanking! Nanking! follows the days of life and death of several people, including fictive characters and the historical John Rabe. Rabe aka the “good Nazi of Shanghai” was the person in charge of the Siemens-headquarters in China at that time. The German businessman would eventually save hundreds of Chinese lives by accommodating a safety zone in the midst of the war-torn city. Sounds like Schindler’s list? Wrong again. Above all, when Nanking! Nanking came out,  the German production named after the title hero (John Rabe, 2009) had been released for a while. Lu Chuan opted for a daring perspective to tell a story never told before. Through the eyes of a young Japanese soldier Kadogawa, we are taken to the bloodcurdling, macabre killing field. But then, all of a sudden, the camera cuts to the military camp on the bank of the River Yangtze. Young men, hardly men but boys, singing and dancing and talking about home. “My mom’s o-mochi (rice cake) is so good,” says one in an improvised bath to his friend, who helps him to wash his back. “Yes indeed. Tokyo is so damn nice!” answers his friend. These are the moments that make one shudder. These are man killers. Slaughterers we eyewitnessed at work just a minute ago. Murder, theft, arson, multilation, gang rape, stabbing bayonet and long stick of bamboo into infants and young children… They are like you and me. How long can a human being stand his own coldblooded cruelty? How is one able to carry out such atrocities and live on and talk about weather and 0-mochi? In the end, our protagonist is so sickened and appalled by what he saw that he has no other choice but to kill himself.

Something extra
The Sino-Japanse War along with the Cultural Revolution and Tibet and a few others are on the black list of the Chinese Ministry of Culture and Education. Almost seven decades on the war stays a delicate matter for both countries. Until today the accepeted sentiment agreed upon by most Chinese men of all ages is to take revenge by abusing back! The Rape of Nanking is verboten! The Japanese are monsters, period!
When released in 2009, Nanking! Nanking! turned out to be a hit with the general audience – much to the surprise of the director. Shortly afterwards Lu received death threats via email intended for him as well as his family. For a while Lu was not even sure whether his film could continue to be shown in China when a high party cadre defended Lu’s work, claiming that the film is a good film because it’s a good example of patriotism, which fits well the Party’s educational purpose. Or maybe it was a carefully staged publicity stunt? In either case, Nanking! Nanking! is one of the best war films I haven’t seen since years.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “History wore a human face in City of Life and Death

  1. Pingback: Caught in the Crossfire: moment of truth | An attempt to thought-provoking, literary courting | Julie O'Yang

  2. Pingback: Caught in the Crossfire — Moments of Truth | Brave New World

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