Editor, U.S. ; Dallas, Texas (@HatefulJosh)
World history is something of a hobby of mine, and tragedy in particular.  It is a morbid pastime, I recognize this, but I think that attempting to understand not only what crimes man can commit against his fellow man, but also why such crimes occur is absolutely fascinating.  It is a bit gruesome to look at an event like the Nanking Massacre and simply count the bodies and atrocities, it is, however, downright frightening to examine the philosophy behind an event like this.

A few years ago, Iris Chang published a book titled The Rape of Nanking, and brought this hideous chapter in history to light for a great many people who knew nothing about it.  In the time since, the event has taken on a life of its own, as the subject of many books, several films, and much debate in China and Japan. Before Chang's book, this was a footnote in Sino-Japanese history to those of us outside of the Far East. However, since its publication, the debate has been reignited, and many in Japan are attempting to debunk the historical evidence against their ancestors who participated in this heinous atrocity.

Lu Chuan's film, City of Life and Death, attempts to put human faces on the victims and perpetrators of the Nanking Massacre.  This, in itself, is a daring act. Prior to this film, the highest profile cinematic portrayal of the event was done by historical shock-meister T. F. Mau, who chronicled the documented atrocities in his gore-fest, Black Sunshine. Strangely, it may be Mau's seemingly over the top version of the story that comes closest to the actual horrors faced by the citizens of Nanking, but it's sheer ferocity would be hard to stomach as a serious dramatic work, despite the historical records backing him up. Chuan's effort is less of an attempt to vilify the Japanese, which is an easy thing to do in this case, and more of an effort to share the dread faced by all of the non-Japanese who were trapped in Nanking for those terrifying three months.

City of Life and Death begins with the siege of the city, in which Japanese troops, fresh from conquering Shanghai, decide that it is time to take Nanking, then the capital of China. The citizens of Nanking knew it was coming and really had no realistic expectations of turning back the Japanese army, and thus were simply engaged in a fight for survival.  They appointed a liaison to the Japanese forces whose job was just to keep them happy and keep his people safe.  Needless to say, it didn't work. 

Chuan's film shows the real life establishment of the Safety Zone, which was supposed to be a small area of town into which Japanese soldiers weren't allowed.  The Safety Zone was protected from the Japanese by several foreigners, whom the Japanese were initially very wary of upsetting, including German businessman John Rabe.  German director Florian Gallenberger made a film about Rabe in 2009, which is a hero story extolling Rabe's virtues and showing him to be the savior of the city. I find it difficult to call anyone a savior in a battle in which somewhere between 100,000 and 300,000 lives were lost among other atrocities. Eventually the Safety Zone is breached, and the Japanese begin to act with impunity against the civilians, and on occasion they even did so with the blessing of their superiors.

I'm giving the Readers' Digest version of the facts, here.  The litany of horrendous acts committed by the Japanese during their occupation of the capital is truly soul-crushing.  It all goes back to the Japanese imperial mindset during that era of history. While the Chinese were often relegated to being seen as the "Sick Man of Asia" by westerners, the Japanese had conversely created a culture of assumed divine superiority.  They felt it was their divine right to rule the world, with their divine (literally) Emperor at its throne. This idea was drilled into the minds of all Japanese, and especially the military, and pushed them through their campaign across Asia and ultimately against the US in WWII. In fact, in their surrender following the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Emperor Hirohito had to abdicate his divine right to rule.

City of Life and Death is the only version of the story that I've seen with a sympathetic Japanese character, and this is very notable.  There is only one sympathetic Japanese character in the cast, the rest are almost caricatures in their evilness. However, this one character was enough to spark protest in China over their being any sympathy for Japanese people in the film. This is what sets City of Life and Death apart from other films on the subject, Hideo Nakaizumi as Kadokawa allows the viewer to see inside of the Japanese regime with a clarity that was unseen previous to this film. He begins to feel remorse and sympathy for the people of this city, but is ultimately unable to curb the flow of blood into its streets.

You will cry when watching City of Life and Death. It's only natural and right that you do.  The film is more than just one tragic event after another, it is a reminder of man's capacity for cruelty and inhumanity against his fellow man.  It is also a reminder of the capacity for compassion, especially with the people within the camp, and their commitment to easing the pain when they are unable to stop the bleeding. This is one of those films, like Schindler's List, that tells a story that deserves to be told.  This film is less cloying than Schindler's List, though, and therefore more able to affect a wider audience.

I know many people who have seen this film once, and will never do it again.  It just hurts too badly. I understand them, and I sympathize with them.  However, I feel that this film, and the story it tells, is an absolute monument to the power of cinema. Perhaps the best historical drama of the new century, and certainly one with the power to emotionally devastate and enlighten in equal measure. You owe it to yourself and to humanity to see this film, it's the least you can do.

The Disc:

I have now seen City of Life and Death three times, first on HK Blu-ray, once projected on the big screen, and now on Kino's US Blu-ray.  I can say with a relative degree of certainty that this is the best presentation I've seen yet.  Lu Chuan and his cinematographer Yu Cao use stark black and white to emphasize the bleak nature of the events on screen and use that monochromatic image to devastating effect.  Kino's Blu-ray recreates this image with incredible clarity and contrast, bettering the film presentation I saw and almost certainly equaling or bettering the previous Blu-ray edition. The audio is equally impressive, though there is not much of the film with active surrounds, the moments when they are used are quite effective. A stunning and stellar effort again from Kino International, who are proving themselves to be a major force in the Blu-ray market with their high quality releases.

Typically the extras section of Kino discs I have less praise for, but this time around, it's all aces from this guy.  In addition to the typical trailers they normally include, Kino have included a second DVD disc with a feature length (1:58) documentary on the making of City of Life and Death titled Matters of Life and Death.  This is something that this film needs. This documentary exhaustively covers every aspect of production with interviews and behind-the-scenes footage to spare.  I truly enjoyed this documentary that goes far beyond the normal scope of behind-the-scenes EPK stuff we normally see on home video.  If for no other reason, this documentary is the gem and the one reason to select this version of City of Life and Death above all others. This film deserves as much context as possible, and a lot is provided here.  A brilliant job from Kino International, color me impressed!

Buy this, share it, don't let the world forget.

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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