Monday, May 9, 2011

Lu Chuan's CITY OF LIFE AND DEATH: returning again to the Nanking massacre

"The Japanese are such a cruel race," mutters Gemma Jones, in one oddly funny observation during the filmed version of Bridget Jones's Diary.  This line, echoing the sentiments of many Britishers who lived through World War II,  is brought to new and appalling heights via the 2009 film CITY OF LIFE AND DEATH, just now opening its U.S. theatrical run. If you've seen, as has TrustMovies, several films already that dealt with the Japanese massacre of Chinese civilians (and army) in the former Chinese capital of Nanking -- including the documentary named for that city, as well as last year's worthwhile German film John Rabe -- you can be forgiven for not rushing headlong to yet another wallow in real-life horror.

Written and directed by Lu Chuan, (shown at left), who earlier gave us the much-admired Mountain Patrol (Kekexili) and The Missing Gun, his new narrative movie, coming after what has already surfaced, may seem like too much, too late. With crack visuals ever at the ready, this is, in some ways, the best of the lot; in other ways, it's the worst. Filmed in wide-screen, using black-and-white cinematography -- the latter certainly takes us back to how movies looked at the time (December 1937) that the event occurred -- Lu's film places us quite thoroughly in the shoes of the massacred Chinese -- some of which are shown, pre-mass, just below.

The movie makes stabs, as well, at placing us in the boots of the marauding Japanese, and very soon we hate these despicable creatures with all our might. Mr. Lu has made his enemy unfeeling monsters where anything Chinese is concerned. Though they joke and talk amongst themselves now and then, given what they're doing the previous and next moment, this chatter fails to humanize them in any important way.

All except for one of these Japanese, that is: a certain soldier named Kadokawa (Hideo Nakizumi, above). Lu has made the incredibly obtuse mistake of tossing every last positive trait onto this young man -- a terrible burden for any real, full-bodied character to have to bear. The actor manages it as best he can, but intelligent viewers are going to suppress a guffaw at the guy. (Even Eastwood handled this sort of thing better in his dank, interminable Letters from Iwo Jima.)

By any standard, the movie is an endurance test, but it may seem especially so for those who've seen earlier films on the subject. The wholesale violence, the executions, the use of women as sex machines for the Japanese soldiers, the casual slaughter of children and the hospitalized -- it's all here, including a mass Sophie's Choice moment toward the finale that just adds to the pain of the poor Chinese.

The very good cast, which includes the likes of Fan Wei (above), Ye Liu and Gao Yuanyuan (two photos above) are all used more as icons than as full-bodied characters. But then, under these grueling circumstances -- everything is always awful -- there is little room for expressions of more than pain and sorrow. Mr. Ye (shown below, right, and bottom, center) fares best, perhaps because he's given more to do early on and is dispensed with before the worst of it.

The most shocking lapse of taste, given all that's come before, occurs just after the two hour mark, when we are treated to the kind of sentimentality that would have seemed au courant back in the 1930s, as someone blows -- I kid you not -- a bouquet of wispy dandelion seeds into the air, as a feel-good ending for a couple of characters materializes.

If you are going to put yourself through this movie, I would advise leaving just after the big Japanese victory ceremony about two hours and five minutes into things (set your watch) to avoid the sentimental embarrassment about to happen. Perhaps the Chinese powers-that-be determined that audiences would need something feel-good after all the carnage. But this? (Now, of course, you'll have to stay around, if only to watch those dandelions twirl....)

City of Life and Death, via Kino International, opens this Wednesday, May 11, at New York's Film Forum for a two-week run. It will probably be appearing elsewhere around the country, and then on DVD, but as of now, I don't know specifics.

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