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
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.