Skip to content

City of Life and Death

September 23, 2009

Have you ever walked out of a theater before the end of a film? I have never. Even when I’m bored, I try to stick it out to the end in case a miracle happens in the last frame.  But I wanted to on the closing night of TIFF 09, and probably would have, had I not been sitting in the middle of a row.

It wouldn’t have been for good…just a few minutes to steady myself, and then I would have taken a deep breath and plunged back in. My would-have actions have nothing to do with the quality of the film. Actually – that’s not true, it has everything to do with the quality of the film and what it accomplished. It is a devastating, devastating experience.

I’m talking about “City of Life and Death.” Directed by Lu Chuan, the film takes place at the height of the Second Sino-Japanese War. The Imperial Japanese Army, after encountering heavy resistance and suffering heavy casualties in the Battle of ShangHai in August 1937, realized that the conquest of China would take years rather than months, as it first estimated. The Japanese government contemplated not expanding the war in light of the low army moral and recent loss, but on December 1st ordered the capture of NanJing, the then-capital of the Republic of China. The Chinese Government planned a defense strategy utilizing the vast landscape of China to its advantage, to draw the Japanese deep into its territories to their own attrition, and decided that NanJing, though symbolic as the capital, is not worth expending elite troops on in the long-term scope of the war. The government relocated on December 1st; The president left on December 7th; and the Japanese army captured the city on December 9, 1937. What followed is a six week period of murder, rape, torture, and inhumane sufferings. It is reported that 300,000 people were killed, most civilians, and 20,000 – 80,000 women raped. The Rape of NanJing.

To describe this film…is to describe human suffering – no words can do it justice. The premise is simple: The city has fallen. There is no order. The Japanese soldiers are out for blood. All Chinese soldiers captured are executed in a number of unbearable fashion. There is no concept of “civilians”. Killings are random and unprovoked. Rape is determined. No one is spared, including children. No one.

The one ray of hope rises in the form of John Rabe, a German national living in NanJing at the time. He helped to establish a refugee camp, an area of semi-refuge to thousands that tragically remain in the city. But even the camp is powerless to stop atrocities. Its only leverage is on one foreign man, who poses as a weak reminder to the link between German-Japan relations. It bears little restraint to the Japanese soldiers on the front line who have been drenched in warfare and away from home for months, who lack in diplomatic considerations. Several other figures, some fictional some historical, live and work in the camp. Miss Jiang (YuanYuan Gao), a school teacher; Mr. Tan (Wei Fan), Rabe’s secretary; Mrs. Tan (Lan Qin); XiaoMei (Di Yao), Mrs. Tan’s little sister; Xiao Jiang (YiYang Jiang), a prostitute; and Xiaodouzi (Bin Liu), a little boy that somehow survived the unsurvivable.

I…this is a difficult film for me to watch, and I didn’t realize even harder to write. I honestly don’t know what to say that will convey to you the inevitable wave of tears that seem to almost overwhelm me every time I see a poster, watch a trailer, and think back to the night that I first saw this film. I’m not a big crier. My strong reaction is undoubtedly in some part linked to my Chinese ancestry. I grew up reading about the NanJing Massacre in the textbooks, and hearing the whispers. And yes, people do whisper. National tragedies are hard on its citizens’ pride, and this is not a topic for public discussion. There is the obvious comparison to the genocide suffered by the Jewish people in WWII, and many compare this film to “Schindler’s List”. There is no comparison though. The method of killing is different – The Nazis were systematic and calculated in their plan, the Japanese were simply on a rampage. The cultural reaction to the suffering is different – while the Holocaust has since been widely publicized, the NanJing Massacre remains a spot of shame, forever marked on the psyche of the Chinese people but rarely talked about. It’s a public secret.

I think another part of my emotional reaction to the film, even more than as a Chinese, is as a woman. The Rape of NanJing is a literal term. I knew there would be graphic scenes, but coming from an asian film,  somehow I thought they may be tamed in nature. I was wrong. Lu Chuan held nothing back. The images will forever be inked in my mind. And even more than that…the screams.

There is a particular scene in the refugee camp where hundreds of women are herded into a church, and they were asked to make the ultimate sacrifice, so that those left and especially the children, can possibly survive the winter. And one by one…the hands go up…one, two, three, four, five, all one hundred of them.

The weak are always the first to suffer in times of conflicts. You hear about the mistreatment of war detainees. People are fierce to protect children. But violation of women have always been in the shadows, especially in the context of war. Why is that? Rape is such a devastating weapon, some would say it’s worse than death. Yet it’s still marred with shame and hushed in certain cultures. Beth told me about the Rape of Berlin, where during the Red Army’s two week advance to capture Berlin at the end of WWII, some 130,000 Berlin girls and women were brutally raped by Soviet soldiers. Ten percent of the victims have committed suicide.  Ignorantly, I have never heard of it till then – and I have visited Berlin and gone to the museums and spoken in depth to Berliners. Bosnia, Bangladashi, Sudan, Darfur, since when has rape become a weapon of war?

What can you say, in the face of such human atrocities? How can we, builders of the pyramids, creators of Shakespear and Mozart and Monet, travellers to the moon and back, be so cruel to ourselves? When will we get through our egotistical identity crisis as a species and realize that to survive as a species, we need to stop killing ourselves first? (please no Darwanian jokes here). Enough. Honestly…Just. Enough.

Much controversies have surrounded the film. Some say it’s too soft, that Lu, in trying to depict a balanced story, downplayed the degree of fervor with which the Japanese committed war crimes. I don’t know if that is true, but the fact that such sentiment exists is food for thought. In googling I came across this image on wikipedia:

It’s a newspaper clipping of a report in the Tokyo Nichi Nichi Shimbun dated December 13, 1937, apparently documenting a killing contest between two Japanese soldier. The main title of the article, from my limited Kanji, states “100 people killed, breaking record – [Name 1] 106 v. [Name 2] 105.”

After all is said, I am glad that this film was made. Knowledge is value, and this film is important. Beautifully shot in black and white, the images are timeless, the faces haunting. Lu Chuan apparently used different grains and grey scales for different sequences – I hardly noticed. After the movie was over, both Beth and I, swollen-eyed, agreed that the absence of color was hardly noticeable. The content of the story was heavy enough without them. There was hardly any musical score. Again, not needed. Everything necessary is already on the screen in front of you. It’s history. And we can’t look away. You won’t be able to.

This is a devastating, devastating film. The city of NanJing was truly one of life and death. The dead littered the streets. The alive desperately trying to stay alive. The powerful demolished the powerless. The powerless quietly spawn new lives. Most people will do anything to stay alive. Some chose death. Some couldn’t help but chose death because they couldn’t bear to live. People make interesting choices in times of despair. The despair, though, doesn’t intimidate me. I am comfortable in sadness. The heaving sobs let me know that I am alive, and they invigorate me to be thankful for the preciousness of life, my life, and to not live it in vain.

Lu Chuan states in an interview (video attached below) that he was a fierce nationalist when he started making the film, and now, having read a vast amount of historical evidences, he has since formed his own opinion. “I think making this film, the most important thing is to let the audience see, and let them reflect for themselves,” he said, “because that kind of ugliness, killing rampantly on the wargrounds, taking anything at will, destroying a woman’s innocence….these are things that are hidden in every man’s heart, they just didn’t have the chance to present themselves.”

Sometimes, it is humanity that scares me.

A reader comment  posted on the IMDB website on April 28, 2009:

I’m a Chinese, I live in Nanjing.

Since i was in primary school, i’ve watched a lot of movies about the slaughter in Nanjing in 1937. We’ve been told and taught that 300,000 Chinese were killed in that slaughter, most of them were refugees. We’ve seen so many cruel photos, read so many articles, and heard the vivid reports of some survivals, which has made 1937’s Nanjing a scar on the heart of every Chinese, especially the old ones who witnessed the slaughter, and their descendants.

I don’t want to talk too much about the hates between Chinese and Japanese. Why I think “Nanjing! Nanjing! ” the greatest movie about this tragedy, is that when LU Chuan shot this movie, he not only put away his hates, but even used an angle of a Japanese soldier, and dared to show the soldier’s sympathy and humanity. This movie is logical, rational and together with deep emotion. It’s not simply a movie for Chinese people to deepen their hates on Japanese, it’s a movie for people all over the world to see, to know, to experience and to explore what Japanese have done to Nanjing in 1937. It’s not another traditional movie about Nanjing Slaughter which describes Japanese soldiers as some mentally disordered ones, as demon; it shows that what happened in Nanjing in 1937 was simply a slaughter human done to human. Just because this movie was shot without hates without slants without sharp emotions, it has demonstrated the most powerful thing in the world: truth.

Nanjing, 1937, not matter Japanese admit its existence or not — we may forgive, but never forget.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. September 29, 2009 5:26 PM

    Wow, Ebert was right when he wrote in his blog that your review “will not be bettered by any other critic.” Great review. Well-written and poignant.

    I am glad that someone made this film. Although it sounds depressing and horrifying and almost unbearable to watch, the world must know what went on during that winter of 1937. When I lived in Japan, I read The Rape of Nanking by the late Iris Chang, often worrying about what my fellow passengers might think were they to see the cover of the book I was reading (right-wingers in Japan hold views on WWII Japanese atrocities similar to that of Holocaust deniers’ views on WWII German atrocities). While some of the facts in the book are supposedly inaccurate, it mentions the bayoneting contest that you discovered while Googling the massacre, accompanying the same (or a similar) article. In the book, Chang wonders why no one has made a movie about the Rape of Nanking (or Nanjing, depending on which spelling one goes with). Now, there is one.

    I hope this movie will find distribution in the U.S. so that this “forgotten Holocaust” (Chang’s words) will cease to be forgotten.

    • Grace permalink*
      September 29, 2009 9:55 PM

      I was puzzled about the spelling. Personally I find it strange that the English title of the film chooses to use the Cantonese spelling (NanKing) instead of the Mandarin spelling (NanJing). After all I think Mandarin is the spoken dialect there?

      • Mark permalink
        March 18, 2012 11:28 AM

        Nanking isn’t the Cantonese spelling, Nanking was the
        Chinese Postal Map Romanization spelling. This was followed by the Wade-Giles name for the city, Nan-ching, and now the Hanyu Pinyin spelling, Nanjing.

  2. September 30, 2009 8:46 AM

    Apparently, Nanking was the romanized version of the name of the city of Nanjing, and so was used because it was the version used by Westerners at the time (as mentioned in the introduction to Iris Chang’s book). It’s probably a bit like Iwo Jima, which was the Japanese name for the island where the WWII battle was fought, but was supposedly not the correct island name (though the change might have been done for political, rather than practical, reasons, as this article points out:

    Also, if any of your readers are interested in reading more about the massacre, this link gives a brief, but good, history of the Rape of Nanking:

  3. Jericho Shi permalink
    October 1, 2009 4:35 PM

    Very in-depth review. I’ve watched both “Rape of Nanking” and “Nanking Nanking”. The first one gave me more emotional shock than the second one, not only it was a documentary but also it was edited and narrated by the third party – an American, which I personally think is more objective and convincing.
    I also love the second one, it was well-directed by LU, great shooting, great editing, great acting…but what makes this movie a charm is that it uses a different way to portray those Japanese soldiers, as one of the reviews you quote said “it used an angle of a Japanese soldier”, it gave the Japanese soldiers more humanity and that differs from the rest of Anti-Japanese War movies I grew up with, as you can probably echo me on this one.
    Speaking of spelling, Nanjing as Nanking, Beijing as Peking, it was Chinese postal map romanization before 1949, has gradually been replaced by Pinyin, nothing to do with Cantonese. Anyway, keep posting here, just realizing you are such a great writer.

  4. David permalink
    October 1, 2009 10:07 PM

    Of the fourteen films I saw at this year’s TIFF, City of Life and Death was by far the most powerful cinematic experience. Thank you for your thoughts.

  5. May 10, 2010 1:36 AM

    Funny, I think this was the first review of yours that I commented on, Grace, before I moved to Seattle, even.

    Anyway, I’m happy to report that this movie will be playing at SIFF, so you know I’ll be watching it then. For anyone else that’s interested (and coming to the festival), here’s the link:

    Grace: Fantastic. Again, don’t schedule social outings post this.

    • May 25, 2010 11:27 PM

      You weren’t kidding! I’m still having to remind myself to take deep breaths, and the film ended over a half hour ago.

      By the way, do you remember the “comfort woman” (shudder) whom Kadokawa liked? IMDB has all of the main characters listed except for her, and I can’t remember her name.

      Grace: You mean the little sister of Mrs. Tang? The actress’s name is Di Yao.

  6. May 31, 2010 1:22 AM

    Just reviewed this movie, myself. Also, I linked back to your review. Hope you don’t mind, but it is one heck of a review. :-)

    Grace: Thanks!

  7. June 26, 2010 12:26 PM

    This is one heck of a good review. Roger Ebert was right, I think (This is the only review I’ve read of that movie). But your words are beautifully written and weaved together.

    I now clearly need to watch this movie, after reading your thoughts on it. I agree on the basis of you comparing the event with what the World War was like for Jews. This has been kept a public secret, and I’m glad to hear that someone has made a movie presenting the shear brutality of what happened. Wonderful job on the review!

    Grace: Thank you.


  1. SIFF, Week One: City of Life and Death (China, 2009, 129 mins) « Dreams of Literary Grandeur
  2. SIFF 2013 Wrap-Up | Murmurs from the Balcony

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: