Believe it or not, this is my 500th post. It is hard to believe I have reached this milestone. It is especially hard to believe that there are still great war movies that I have not reviewed. I would not bet against reaching my 1000th post at this rate. Of course, that will mean watching a lot of crappy war movies. I choose to post on a little known Chinese war movie because one of the most awesome facets of my blogging experience is it has forced me to broaden my cinema horizons. I watched a lot of war movies since childhood, but never foreign ones and never ones with subtitles. I had no idea what I was missing.
“City of Life and Death” is a Chinese war movie that is set in the Rape of Nanking during the Second Sino-Japanese War. It was directed by Lu Chuan. He also wrote the screenplay after reading many letters and diaries and interviewing Japanese veterans. (He was surprised to find a lack of remorse as most of the soldiers excused their behavior as “everyone was doing it”.) He was influenced by the book The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang. The movie had some trouble getting past Chinese censors and was heavily criticized by many in China for its sympathetic portrayal of its main Japanese character.
A series of postcards gives background leading up to the Japanese assault on the capital city of Nanking in 1937. The bombardment of the city walls and the subsequent entry of Japanese soldiers leads to widespread panic amongst the Chinese soldiers. Thousands of refugees flee the city, but not everyone. Private Kadokawa (Nakaizumi Hideo) is in a unit that encounters a large number of Chinese civilians in a church. Kadokawa’s arc begins when he accidentally machine guns some Chinese women hiding in a confessional. This will be the last accidental killing in this movie.
Not all the Chinese soldiers behave like the modern Iraqi army. A unit led by Lu Jianxiong ambushes Kadokawa and his mates. The Chinese put up a desperate fight reminiscent of the British defense at the Arnhem bridge in “A Bridge Too Far”. The combat is in the South Korean style as in “Tae Guk Gi” and it is a blast, literally. Lu, Shunzi (Zhao Yisui) and a boy named Xiaodouzi (Liu Bin) are taken captive. At this point the atrocities begin. A montage depicts the variety employed by the Japanese – burying alive, machine gunning, burning alive in a building. Chinese soldiers are herded to places of mass execution. By pure luck Shunzi and Xiaodouzi survive and take refuge in the “Safety Zone”.
The Safety Zone is an area of the city that the Japanese have reluctantly allowed the Chinese citizens to take refuge in. The zone is run by the few foreigners still in the city. They are led by a German businessman named John Rabe (John Paisley) and an American missionary named Minnie Vautrin (Beverly Peckous). Rabe has some cachet with the Japanese authorities because he is a Nazi and the Japanese are in awe of their allies. In spite of that, the Safety Zone is regularly visited by Japanese soldiers for raping. When Rabe is recalled to Germany because of his politically incorrect humaneness, his secretary Tang (Fan Wei) makes a deal with the devil to save his family. (Tang is another example of how war makes us do things out of character.) This does not stop the Japanese from demanding women be provided for prostitution in “comfort stations”. Not long after, the Japanese come to clean out the Chinese soldiers hiding in the zone. This includes Shunzi and Xiaodouzi.
The Rape of Nanking used to be a forgotten event in history. In the last twenty years it has finally gotten its due coverage. This was partly through Chang’s bestselling book, but also through movies like “John Rabe” (2009) and “The Flowers of War” (2011). “City of Life and Death” is the culmination of this historical enlightening. It is as good a tutorial as you will get without reading on the subject. The Nanking Massacre was a six week period in 1937 after the city fell to the Japanese. Chiang Kai-shek decided to withdraw most of the Chinese forces, leaving only a token defense force. This force did not put up much of a fight and the city fell easily, although the campaign had been a surprisingly costly one for the Japanese army. By the time the city succumbed, only about twenty foreigners remained in it. Most of them became members of an International Committee that was put in charge of the Safety Zone which was in the western quarter of the city. John Rabe was the acknowledged leader of the group. The Japanese were led by Prince Asaka who had been assigned to Nanking by Hirohito to redeem himself for having a “poor attitude”. He instituted a “kill the captives” policy. (Asaka was exempted from war crimes trial after the war as part of MacArthur’s grant of immunity to the royal family.) The Japanese agreed to stay out of the zone as long as there were no Chinese soldiers hiding there. There were. This does not excuse the frequent incursions to rape. It is estimated that 20,000 Chinese women were raped during the time period. Many of these rapes resulted in mutilations and death. The movie brings some attention to the “comfort women” who were forced into sex slavery for the Japanese army. Overall, it is estimated that between 40-300,000 Chinese were killed in Nanking. Virtually every Chinese soldier that was captured was executed. Most infamously, thousands were machine gunned along the banks of the Yangtze River. The movie chronicles the variety of methods used.
John Rabe and Minnie Vautrin are significant figures in the story. Rabe has been likened to Oscar Schindler. He is credited with saving as many as 250,000 Chinese. Upon his recall to Germany, he tried to bring light to the inhumanity of the Japanese actions. The Gestapo was having none of that and he was forced to keep silent. Vautrin was a missionary/teacher who ran Ginling College which was within the Safety Zone. She tirelessly worked to minimize the Japanese depredations on her students and Chinese civilians who took refuge there. The stress was too much and she ended up committing suicide when she returned to America. (Coincidentally, Chang also took her own life.)
“City of Life and Death” is an amazing movie. Don’t be scared away by its subtitles and black and white cinematography. The black and white suits its bleak storyline. Chuan felt the overabundance of the red from bloodshed would distract from the central theme. That theme had to do with the dehumanizing nature of war. Chuan came under much criticism for portraying the Japanese soldiers as regular joes corrupted by the stresses and stimuli of war. When they are not committing atrocities, their behavior is normal. Perhaps reflecting the nonremorseful attitudes Chuan discovered in his interviews. Most of the backlash was related to the Kadokawa character. He falls in love with a prostitute, shows empathy for a comfort woman, saves another from rape, and intervenes in the execution of Shunzi and Xiaodouzi. He is the only Japanese character with a conscience, but as the framing device for the plot, one can understand the anger of some Chinese critics. Chuan’s decision to blame the war for what motivated the Japanese soldiers is at odds with Chang’s take on the event. She was criticized for the opposite. Her book makes the case that the Japanese committed the atrocities because of their culture. Based on my knowledge of military history, I lean towards Chang on this. If I were Chinese, I would have been a little upset with the movie as well. Chuan was being naïve and exculpatory. Several armies went through more stressful and costly campaigns than the Japanese at Nanking without giving in to bestial passions on the unprecedented scale seen there. This would be a good time to mention that the movie is harsh in its depiction of those atrocities and yet it comes nowhere near depicting them to their actual extent.
As entertainment the film has no weaknesses. The acting is outstanding by a great cast. Most important, there are several strong female characters. Most intriguing is the prostitute Xiaojiang (Jiang Yiyan) who refuses to cut her hair to hide her femininity and later is the first to volunteer to sacrifice herself as a comfort woman. Hideo does a fine job as the conscience-stricken Kadokawa. His transformation is subtle. The cinematography is noteworthy. There is some well-blended CGI in the opening assault on the city walls and the big battle scene is furious and exciting. It comes early in the film, but there is no anti-climax in the rest of the story because there are several powerful scenes to come. This is another similarity with “Schindler’s List”. These scenes are allowed to take their time which is against recent trends in movies. The score is understated, but effective.
I have seen over two hundred war movies since starting this project. When I finished reviewing the Greatest 100, people asked what I would do next. I told them there were still many more movies to watch and I still had to compile my 100 Best list. Currently I am reviewing movies that are worthy of consideration for that list. I originally thought that if I had not seen the movie yet, it could not be that great. I have been proven wrong several times already. “City of Life and Death” is a good example. It will definitely make my 100 Best War Movies.
GRADE = A