City of Life and Death

Raping of Nanjing


09 June 2011| No Comments on City of Life and Death     by Sean Chavel


We live in a movie era bombarded with war films embedded with slaughter, injustices, dehumanization. There are great ones that have you thinking about politics at large or about the resilience of the human spirit or about the piteousness of prejudice towards one’s enemy. But with one filmmaker after another, there is inevitably a dramatist’s preoccupation to shock us with the reality that is war. That shocking inhumanity has to be dramatized forcefully, but how can you be convinced that it really was as inexorably devastating as City of Life and Death claims the Japanese Imperial Army invasion of Nanjing, China was in 1937? The film says its so. After encyclopedic research following the film, I learn the actual bloodshed was far, far worse and so the film is not exaggerated. Now the effort of the film is clear for at least one reason: to hold onto the memory of those who suffered. But the film removes itself from other suitable issues that should have been explored and made revelatory.

“City of Life and Death” has the look of a major masterpiece, hey, if it has the black & white look that makes it the “Schindler’s List” of the Far East is must be austere. The Japanese are so cruel, but without any grey area and the director puts atrocity on-screen without subtlety and without insight to understand the hate in any decipherable context.

Of course there is only one Japanese soldier with a conscious – Hideo Nakaizumi as Kadokawa, the educated one, and it’s an emotive performance in a cold film. And yet, you must assume he’s either a composite or worse, a non-existent person . Gao Yuanyuan as Miss Jiang is one of the women on the Safety Zone committee who recognizes this sole man of conscious when it is absent from everyone else. Fan Wei as Mr. Tang (perhaps connecting most with the audience) is a well-respected secretary of Nanjing, who goes through the horror of seeing his wife and daughter raped. In a variance from typecast of 1930’s Hitler associates, John Paisley has the key role as Nazi sympathizer John Rabe who actually protected many Chinese men and women from worse bloodshed. It is apparent that Rabe has strong ties to Hitler, and because of that acknowledgement, the Japanese colonels have to listen to him.

The origins of hate, that agitator of war, is unclear: Did they hate Chinese people or just China, the land they wanted to takeover? Or did they just hate going to fight in war? Whatever the case, director Lu Chuan does not convey the roots of war rage very well, despite the bold B&W cinematography, his editing and camera steering is just clumsy. When a Japanese soldier violently tosses an innocent child out of a window, the cruelty is faceless, we don’t see that violent soldier very well. If we can’t see him, then we can’t judge what kind of man he is. The formality of the cruelty ordered by senior officers also doesn’t ring true – it’s like they approve an onslaught of rape upon captured Chinese women as if that’s just what happens in war and not because it arises from any ideology about punishing your enemy. The filmmaker does not dissect the meaning of human consciousness or lack thereof.

“The City of Life” is an art on human destruction. But it is aestheticized destruction and not a window into the human impulses that cause destruction. There are certain reasons as to why it’s just too hard to watch, and not just because of the content. It’s missing an artist’s asserted empathy. It also contains too many incomplete scenes. Although, it is hard to deny that a few scenes do have a certain power that will reach out to you.

Certainly it will be a notable film amongst critics at large, so it’s difficult to ignore or brush it off. The content is momentously considerable and the cinematography is so prominent that it could very well be at least talked about during awards season. Update March 1, 2012: An entire year rolled around and “City” failed to get any awards or Oscar noms for cinematography. Evidently, it was too draining for voters to sit through no matter how potent the images.

133 Minutes. B&W. Rated R. Mandarin with English subtitles.


Film Cousins: “Seven Beauties” (1976, Italy); “Come and See” (1985, Russia); “Schindler’s List” (1993); “The Grey Zone” (2001).

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Sean Chavel

About The Author / Sean Chavel

Sean Chavel is a Hollywood based author and movie reviewer. He is the Executive Director of, a new website that has adapted the movie review site genre by introducing moodbased and movie experience based reviews.


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