City of Life and Death

Tuesday, 21 September 2010 07:34

Set in Nanjing, China in 1937 and based on real events, “City of Life and Death” tells the awful story of the merciless Japanese invasion of the city and the slaughter, rape and pillaging that took place. Lu Chuan’s movie has won many awards (including a 2009 Asia Pacific Screen Award and a 2010 Asian Film Award for direction), and it is guaranteed to leave a lasting mark on the psyche of anyone that watches it.

The movie opens with the Japanese arriving at the outskirts of the city. All that stands in their way is the imposing city wall, but they make short work of it with bombs and explosive tank rounds. When they enter the city, they find that many of the Chinese troops and inhabitants have fled, but thousands remain. The Chinese ranks are quickly crushed, and small pockets of resistance are efficiently flushed out with mortar rounds.

City of Life and Death on DVD and Blu-rayWith the death toll already in the hundreds of thousands, the Japanese round up everyone they can find and put them in temporary POW camps. From there they are marched off in waves of hundreds to meet a terrible fate. Some are mowed down by machinegun fire with their backs to the sea, some are brutally stabbed with bayonets and buried half-alive, and others are shut in a building and burnt to death.

The film features scene after graphic scene like this of unspeakable acts being done to the Chinese, and it is sometimes very hard to stomach. The film is thankfully very tastefully crafted and not at all sensational. An effort is made to achieve some balance and to avoid becoming excessive; later on a “safety zone” camp is set up for 100,000 refugees, thanks to the efforts of German businessman John Rabe (John Paisley), his aid Mr Tang (Wei Fan) and other international and high-ranking inhabitants of Nanjing.

For a time, life quietens down a little for those still alive, but even then, whenever a shot rings out, the nervous calm breaks into a shrill panic as the camp detainees check first that they are not in immediate danger, and second that their friends and loved ones are also safely close at hand. Predictably, once the Japanese soldiers become restless and yearn the companionship of a woman, events quickly spiral out of control again.

This truly is a tale of desperate struggle in the face of a massively superior enemy, of courage, honour and sacrifice, and of the comparative lives of the Japanese soldiers on the one hand with their sake, games and treatment of Chinese women as pieces of meat, and the filthy, terrified Chinese, some of whom maintain an inward or outward spirit of resistance, whereas others become quietly resigned to their fates.

Not all of the Japanese blindly follow orders or get a kick out of wiping their opponents off the face of the Earth. The movie uses the example of one sergeant by the name of Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi). Kadokawa starts out as an adept soldier, but soon finds he is appalled by the senseless, dishonourable slaughter of surrendering forces and innocent civilians. At first he is too bound up in events and possibly afraid to do or say anything in protest, but as the atrocities build up, you sense it can only be a matter of time before he takes a stand.

Even on DVD, the film looks fantastic. It is shot in crisp black and white, and as is often the case this helps to take the audience back in time. The crumbling, charred remains of the city are a constant, authentic reminder of what was once the proud capital of the Republic, but so quickly became a tomb for 300,000 victims. The orchestral soundtrack beautifully captures the mood of the tragedy taking place, and the director also knows when to use silence to evoke a sense of time standing still, and for moments of sad reflection.

Neither the DVD nor Blu-ray releases appear to come with any special features, which is an incredible missed opportunity.

“City of Life and Death” (2009) is released on DVD and Blu-ray on 27 September 2010, courtesy of High Fliers. The running time of the main feature is 139 minutes approx, certificate ‘15’ and the movie retails for £15.99 on DVD and £19.99 on Blu-ray, or less from

Last modified on Thursday, 10 May 2012 16:37

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