“City of Life and Death” (also called “Nanking! Nanking!” or “Nanjing! Nanjing!”) is a Chinese movie about the Nanking Massacre (or as the Japanese called it – the Nanking Incident) of 1937. It was written and directed by Lu Chuan. He based it on The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang. He also used letters, diaries, and soldier interviews. The film took four years from start to finish, including a year to be vetted by Chinese authorities. It was a big box office hit.
The movie is dedicated to “the 300,000 victims of the Nanking Massacre”. Even before the credits roll there are some amazing visuals. Japanese tanks attack the city walls. Inside the city a mob of demoralized Chinese soldiers breaks through a human wall of their comrades to escape the city. Refugees are also leaving the doomed city. But not everyone gets out. Some go to the Safety Zone created by a group of foreigners led by a German named John Rabe (John Pisley). The Japanese have agreed to respect the Safety Zone as long as it contains no Chinese soldiers. They apparently have not agreed to respect the Chinese women as their soldiers infiltrate to rape. Minnie Vautrin (Beverly Pekous), an American missionary and head of the all-girl Ginling College, does her best to stop this. Eventually, the Japanese demand 100 women to become “comfort women” (prostitutes in army brothels). They also demand that all the disguised Chinese soldiers be turned over. There are going to be a lot of executions.
The movie covers both sides of the situation. The main character is a Japanese soldier named Kadokawa (Nakaizumi Hideo). He is greatly effected by what he witnesses and participates in. He falls in love with a Japanese comfort woman named Yuriko (Miramoto Yuko). He is counterbalanced by his commanding officer Ida (Khohata Ryu). Their arcs will head in opposite directions. The movie intercuts between Kadokawa, Ida, and their mates and life in the Safety Zone. Rabe, Vautrin, and other foreigners do their best to keep the refugees alive. Rabe’s secretary Tang (Fan Wei) becomes a collaborator. He is contrasted to the brave Miss Jiang (Gao Yuan Xuan) who risks her life to rescue Chinese soldiers. The plight of the Chinese soldiers is represented by Shunzi (Zhao Yisui) and Xiaodouzi (Liu Bin).
“City of Life and Death” is an amazing movie. It has few flaws. The acting is great and the characters are indelible. They cover the gamut of people affected by the massacre. Notably, there are some strong female characters. They are not all victims. Kadokawa has gotten the most press due to the perception that he is too sympathetic of a character given the actions of most Japanese soldiers. Undoubtedly, there were some actual soldiers who responded to what they saw and participated in by having their humanity pricked, but to have the main character exemplify that small minority caused a lot of controversy. Lu Chuan received death threats and there was talk of the movie being removed from theaters. It was removed from consideration for Chinese movie awards. I can see that point of view. Kadokawa does dilute the horridness of what happened in Nanking. But Lu does have a dastardly villain in Ida to represent the typical Japanese soldier. If you look at post-war Japan, it could be argued that the movie’s depiction of the Japanese soldiers as succumbing to their based instincts is not unrealistic. Lu claimed that he was influenced by “Schindler’s List” and I can see that.
Although not a combat movie, the film does have one outstanding combat scene in which Shunzi and Xiaodouzi’s unit ambushes a Japanese patrol. The cinematography reminds of South Korean war movies. Another memorable scene is when a prostitute named Xiaojiang (Jiang Yiyan) offers to be one of the 100 women the Japanese are “borrowing”. The movie can be gut-wrenching and has a montage of a variety of executions (although the censors forbade inclusion of Japanese officers beheading civilians). The rapes are more implied than graphic.
The script includes some historical persons like Rabe and Vautrin, but most of the characters are fictional. Lu Chuan has done a good job of sticking to the historical facts. It is not like there are no other movies on the Nanking Massacre. “John Rabe” came out the same year and we have “The Flowers of War” from 2011. This is the one to watch, however. It tells the story in a very entertaining way. As a history lesson, it is outstanding.
GRADE = A
HISTORICAL ACCURACY: The Nanking Massacre took place in the Second Sino-Japanese War. After capturing Shanghai, the Japanese army proceeded on to the Chinese capital. The Chinese army put up little fight. The walls were breached with artillery fire (not tank fire). There were incidents where Chinese soldiers fought others trying to flee the city. The movie is accurate in its depiction of the executions, looting, and rapes except that they were much worse. The policy was known as the 3 Alls: kill all, burn all, loot all. It is estimated that between 40-300,000 Chinese were killed in six weeks. The sets realistically depict the bombed out, deserted look to the city. It downplays the looting, burning, and the corpses lying around. 15 of the 22 foreigners in the city set up the International Committee and created the Nanking Safety Zone. Their leader was John Rabe. Rabe was a German businessman and although a Nazi, he was against the Anti-Comintern Pact. He was a Schindler-like figure. The fact he was a German gave him cachet with the Japanese. The International Committee agreed that no Chineses soldiers would be allowed in the zone. They could not turn aside soldiers however and prayed that the fact they were unarmed would dissuade the Japanese. They were wrong. As shown in the movie, the Japanese came in and checked hands for callouses. Undoubtedly some rickshaw drivers, carpenter, etc. were rounded up for execution. The Japanese did allow family members to claim one arrestee each. Many of the “soldiers” were executed along the banks of the Yangtze. The Japanese did rape a lot of women in the safety zone and at one point came in to demand 100 comfort women. Vautrin refused, but after 21 women volunteered, the Japanese were satisfied. The films rendering of the comfort stations is accurate.