IFFR 2010: CITY OF LIFE AND DEATH (and a BluRay Review, and a comparison with JOHN RABE)

Editor, Europe; Rotterdam, The Netherlands (@ardvark23)
IFFR 2010: CITY OF LIFE AND DEATH (and a BluRay Review, and a comparison with JOHN RABE)

Much praise has already been sung on this site about "City of Life and Death" , Chuan Lu's film about the Nanjing massacre. I'm going to add a little to that, but the biggest news I have is that the English-friendly regionfree BluRay release by MegaStar is damn good. I'll elaborate later...

Also, last month I happened to see Florian Gallenberger's "John Rabe" , the OTHER big film released last year about the Nanjing massacre. And while the consensus seems to be that the Chinese effort is the best of the two, it is worthy of note that at the start of this year both movies had the same score (7.3) on IMDB...


So how do they truly compare?


The Story:

In December 1937 the Japanese army besieged and conquered the city of Nanjing, which was the capital of China at the time. In the weeks that followed the Japanese soldiers acted atrociously towards the Chinese. All prisoners-of-war were executed but the violence also spilled over on to the civilian population: by the time the atrocities ended (three months later) an estimated 300.000 people had been killed and 80.000 women had been raped...

In this film the massacre is viewed through the eyes of several Chinese soldiers and civilians who find themselves at "ground zero" when the city falls. It also shows the same events as seen by a Japanese sergeant, who discovers it gets more and more difficult to reconcile his inner decency with the barbaric behavior of his army.

The Movie:

Even while I'm writing this review I notice I get agitated, reminding myself of several scenes. If there is one thing Lu Chuan's movie is good at it's getting under your skin: after the first viewing I had to go home and change my shirt. 

And if you read up on what happened in Nanjing during the Japanese occupation, you can easily find even worse things than are described here. Any Japanese rebuttals about the "Rape of Nanjing" being "A figment of Chinese propaganda" can easily be waylaid by the fact that the many witness accounts come from German, American, and even Japanese sources. During a separate part of the Rotterdam Festival, the short film "Civilian Casualties of Military Brutality" is shown. Technically a documentary in the truest sense of the word, it consists of one reel of 16mm footage shot by American priest John Magee when patrolling the Civilian Safety Zone (set up by John Rabe and himself, amongst others). The footage is unbelievably harsh and includes the corpses of pregnant women and babies bayonetted to death by the Japanese soldiers. Magee made a number of these tapes but only managed to smuggle a few out of Nanjing, and these were used later as evidence in the Nanjing War Crimes Tribunal.

So Lu Chuan scores major points by using restraint in what he shows. Having the content filtered a bit makes his movie strangely enough far more effective, as an even more realistic account would probably have sickened most of the audience to the point of leaving the cinema prematurely. And what he does show is certainly no picnic: burnings, mass shootings, live burials... Rape is shown too though coitus is thankfully never fully in view, with the aftermath and the screams of the victims sufficiently disgusting. Another thing the Japanese like to deny (and fail to impress with) was the massive use of so-called "comfort zones", areas where prostitution was practiced for "the relief of" the Japanese soldiers. Local women were forced into this "service" all over occupied Asia, often dying from maltreatment and disease, and Nanjing was no different. Maybe the most harrowing parts of "City of Life and Death" to watch concern these "comfort women". The shot of naked dead bodies being wheelbarrowed from a comfort zone is one that sticks around beyond its welcome.

One of the reasons why the film works so well is because the material is not abused to show the Japanese as evil psychopaths. The violence is all the more shocking because it is entirely believable that this is what happens when you let an army stay at the same place for three months without punishing any of its soldiers for bad behavior.

Much is made of Hideo Nakaizumi's fine portrayal as the Japanese sergeant Kadokawa, who is elated when Nanjing is taken but grows ever more abhorred by what he sees. Unfortunately the sergeant is unable to act against it because army hierarchy does not leave room for criticizing your superiors. Far from being a human monster, this character is a rare nuance not often found in Chinese cinema, and all the more reason to applaud Lu Chuan for this inclusion.

But performances are good across the board. Even the bit parts feel believably more-dimensional, and the feeling that you're watching real people remains consistently high throughout the movie. It makes the whole experience ever so much more intense.

Another big plus for this film is cinematography. Never mind that you're constantly watching the decrepit goings-on of wretched humans in a ruined city, the black and white photography here is nothing short of beautiful. When I started to freeze images to use as screenshots this became even more obvious: the film is chock-full of artful compositions. My guess is that if I had taken ten snaps with my eyes closed, I'd be able to use at least seven of them as screenshots. It looks THAT good. At the same time it doesn't look painfully artificial either, and that's quite an achievement.

In the end it left me feeling... not exactly punched in the gut, but sufficiently shoved to leave a strong impression.



Surprisingly managing to stay on the right side of exploitation, propaganda and good taste, "City of Life and Death" offers a bleak look at human behavior and is at the same time a testament to survival. Although it is not overtly gory, the film is powerfully shocking at times, and not for the squeamish.

Those squeamish are missing something though... this movie is definitely recommended.


Compared to Florian Gallenberger's "John Rabe":

While Lu Chuan's film concerns itself primarily with the "view from below", showing the Nanjing massacre from the point of view of the civilians and soldiers, in Florian Gallenberger's "John Rabe" you see the discussions in the top echelons. Gallenberger shows Mr. Rabe discussing how to run the Civilian Safety Zone but we also see how the Japanese high command functioned, including a VERY damning portrait of Prince Asaka (who is nowhere to be seen in "City of Life and Death" ).

On paper this difference in perspective could have made these two films perfect companions, together giving a fleshed-out overview of what happened in Nanjing during that winter. It is therefore unfortunate that in practice the two narratives so often exclude each other. These contradictions never become more obvious than in two distinct points in the films. I will go into some detail here, so if you are afraid of spoilers for either of these films pray continue to the BluRay review.

The first point of contention concerns the mass-rape which happened when soldiers forced their way into a girl's school inside the Civilian Safety Zone. In "City of Life and Death" this is one of the most damning and sickening illustrations of misbehavior by the Japanese army. In "John Rabe", it is never even mentioned (even though the real Rabe reported the event). Worse, something similar almost happens but the Japanese soldiers behave as perfect gentlemen even though (in a bewilderingly misjudged piece of narrative-enrichment) they have been given a valid reason for attacking the school.

The second point concerns Rabe's eventual departure from Nanjing. In the film "John Rabe" this is shown as a glorious victory, with Mr. Rabe successfully thwarting the plans of the evil Prince Asaka to raze the Civilian Safety Zone before the diplomats return to Nanjing. Rabe's final departure shows him happily reuniting with his wife, while being cheered off by the Chinese people he helped saving. The scene almost seems like it will turn into a musical song-and-dance-routine. In "City of Life and Death" however, Rabe's departure is an incredibly sad affair. The Chinese see him off with wails of anguish and desperate pleas to stay, knowing that he functioned as the perfect living shield against the Japanese. But all Rabe can do is keep on saying "I'm so sorry...". And indeed, after John Rabe has left the Japanese waste no time purging the leftover civilians from anyone they deem suspicious, meaning nearly all men.

Don't think these two examples show that Florian Gallenberger's "John Rabe" is kiddie fodder though. Unlike Lu Chuan's film it shows the infamous "decapitation contest" held between Japanese officers, whose tally of chopped-off heads was daily publicized in newspapers. As for the person of "John Rabe" himself, Lu Chuan seems to paint him a little too impotent, too weak. Then again, Rabe is not the focus of his film: the "little" people are. The real Mr. Rabe apparently was a constant thorn in the Japanese's side, an embarrassing itch they couldn't scratch as hard as they would like because Germany and Japan were allies.

Both films cannot be said to give a perfect version of "The Truth" concerning what really happened in Nanjing. Florian Gallenberger's "John Rabe" is very good during the first half, making it all the more frustrating that the story in the second half is riddled with obvious dramatic embellishments.

Not having been in Nanjing at the time (thankfully) I cannot say in earnest that "City of Life and Death" has less dramatization or even distortion in it. But Lu Chuan's film is a lot more consistent and, in the end, leaves a far bigger impression.

On to the BluRay:

Long live the global economy: even before you go to the cinema for a foreign movie there is often a selection of BluRays available from its home country. This film is no different, so based on technical reviews elsewhere (thanks go to the ever-diligent Ulrik from Affenheimtheater) I went for the MegaStar edition from Hong Kong and it arrived just in time for the IFFR-review. Thankfully this edition plays on both Region-A and Region-B players (no matter what the on-line shop says) as my player is firmly locked in "B" but had no trouble with any of the contents.

Note that at the moment I do not have a satisfactory way of getting screenshots from a BluRay. As we only use small thumbnails here at ScreenAnarchy anyway (unless we're talking galleries) I borrowed the MegaStar DVD from a friend and took the screenshots you see here from the DVD.

But oh boy, what a world of difference...

The DVD is heavily combed, not really sharp and there are contrast issues. This is not the best of transfers (serviceable at best) and because of all the combing I had to do quite some work to get technically usable screenshots.

Yet when you look at the MegaStar BluRay (yes, the SAME distributor) it's hard to find any issues at all. The transfer is razorsharp and the image is simply gorgeous. This is now easily the best-looking black and white movie in my collection.

Audio consists of a lossless Mandarin and a lossless Cantonese track, although in earnest both tracks are very multilingual with German, American and Japanese people each speaking their own languages. The English subtitles are good and easily readable.

The Nanjing massacre is of course a great subject for adding extras. There must be scores of historical documentaries and source material on the subject available (as I mentioned, several are being shown at this year's festival), but alas: none are included in this edition.

What is there is a trailer and a whopping large making-of documentary. These are not English-subtitled unfortunately (curses!) but it's a very unusual making-of anyway as it is not too obviously edited. It's basically over a 100 minutes of "fly-on-the-wall" material, loosely grouped into four chapters. Three of those are based on the actors, but the final one (and at 50 minutes the biggest) concerns how they shot all the fighting scenes seen in the first 40 minutes of the movie. It's a very hands-on take on how to make such a documentary, and bits and pieces of this are very interesting indeed.

Concluding: the extras are a missed opportunity, but if you just want a stellar version of the film itself there is nothing wrong with MegaStar's BluRay.

City of Life and Death

  • Chuan Lu
  • Chuan Lu
  • Ye Liu
  • Yuanyuan Gao
  • Hideo Nakaizumi
  • Wei Fan
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Chuan LuYe LiuYuanyuan GaoHideo NakaizumiWei FanDramaHistoryWar

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