The third film by formidable Chinese director Lu Chuan, "City of Life and Death" takes as its subject the infamous atrocity known as the rape of Nanking. That was the 1937-38 Japanese takeover of China's then capital city that led to the deaths of an estimated 300,000 civilians as well as sexual assaults said to number in the tens of thousands.
But statistics, like words, are weak things, all but powerless to convey the brutal horror of that situation or the ability of this film to capture and convey its dehumanizing essence, to make us feel, as one of "City's" agonized protagonists puts it, "Life is more difficult than death."
As a portrait of the unspeakable things that can happen when soldiers are let loose on a civilian population, "City of Life and Death" is (as the opening section of "Saving Private Ryan" was for combat) in a class by itself as it cuts back and forth between the experiences of several individuals on both sides of the massacre.
Clearly a man possessed by his subject, Lu (who also wrote the screenplay after two years of research that focused on recorded witness testimony) has infused an intensity of emotion into every frame of this film, capturing the sense of mind-warping chaos and pure bedlam that emerge when panic and terror rule the day.
Lu has done this by managing to be both epic and intimate. Helped by powerful, convincing acting, he combines a delicate, empathetic touch with the ability to stage action on a large scale. He does it all without any sense of special pleading, by bringing the kind of cool matter-of-factness he showed in his compelling last feature, 2004's "Kekexili, Mountain Patrol," to the charnel house streets of Nanking.
Working as he did on "Kekexili" with superb cinematographer Cao Yu, Lu has chosen to shoot "City" in stunning widescreen black and white, expertly filling the frame with arresting compositions, whether of combat, atrocities or tears, images that are never expected and never without maximum impact. As the director says in the press notes, "I have to use a big frame to totally conquer an audience."
That camerawork is one of the keys to "City of Life and Death's" impact. Most of the film is shot using a peering, probing handheld camera that creates intimacy and intensifies emotion. Some scenes are so effectively re-created it's as if the film has somehow captured documentary reality with a long-forgotten hidden camera.
With piles of dead bodies everywhere, in every possible position, it's impossible to overstate how crushing that reality turns out to be.
Women raped repeatedly, men bayoneted, systematically buried alive, incinerated. Huge seas of corpses, severed heads displayed on wires, a massive pile of naked women carted off for disposal. Just listing what is done is appalling enough, actually watching it is almost unbearable.
What keeps us watching, aside from Lu's surpassing skill, is our increasing involvement in the personal stories of the film's handful of protagonists on both sides of the conflict. For what made "City" controversial on its release in China, where the rape of Nanking is more infamous than Pearl Harbor is here, was his willingness to explore the psychology of the invad- ers. "The Japanese are normal, ordinary people like us," the director says. "War is the thing that makes people transform into animals."
So we spend considerable time with Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi), a young Japanese soldier whose impulses toward sensitivity and simple human feeling, including being attracted to a Japanese prostitute working in a "comfort woman" brothel, are impossible to sustain.
Though Liu Ye, the film's biggest star, plays a heroic Chinese officer, most of "City of Life and Death" focuses, with a certain amount of irony, on the Chinese who thought they were privileged and protected because they worked for German businessman John Rabe (John Paisley), the Third Reich's official representative in Nanking. These include his assistant Miss Jiang (Gao Yuanyuan) and his complaisant male secretary Tang (Fan Wei).
Aghast at the savagery of Japanese actions, Rabe uses his limited authority to establish an international safety zone for civilians where soldiers are not allowed, but it is a system not fated to last, with horrific results when it collapses.
Hard as this is to watch, we dare not look away. "City of Life and Death" is a necessary reminder of what we've allowed ourselves to forget because memory is too painful to sustain. If we had more dramatic experiences like this one, perhaps we would work harder to see that they're never repeated for real.