#216: City of Life and Death
Initial release: April 22, 2009
Director: Chuan Lu
Human history is one long string of people finding new ways to inflict misery on one another. World War II gave us a raft of examples, but few are as horrific as the Nanking massacre, also cheerily known as “The Rape of Nanking.” From December 1937 through to January 1938, the Imperial Japanese army, following an initial summer invasion of China at large from their holdings in Manchuria (annexed in 1931), attacked the city of Nanking and launched a campaign of rape, murder and looting. The violence was so bad that John Rabe, a literal Nazi (and not just because you had to be one to do business in Germany) was sickened by what Germany’s ostensible allies were doing. As one of the few remaining foreigners in China he established a safe zone to protect citizens from the IJA. The Nanking massacre, like other Imperial Japanese atrocities, is a frequent appearance in Chinese war film. The portrayal is usually one-sided, with the Imperial Japanese being little more than moustache-twirling cartoon villains. (Hey, the US and Russia do it with Nazis.)
But in City of Life and Death, also known as Nanking! Nanking! Chinese filmmaker Chuan Lu has made the daring choice to show both ends of the bayonet, with the survivors on one side, and the perpetrators on the other — in particular, a portrayal of a young private (later sergeant) who grows disillusioned, even haunted, by the misery around him. Politically risky in China, for whom the Nanking massacre remains, at least for a few more years, in living memory, the move nearly got the film banned in its country of origin; however, in the end, only a few cuts were made by the state film bureau.
Perhaps it’s a testament to the powerful performance by Hideo Nakaizumi, whose Sgt. Kadokawa goes from bright-eyed, scared private to a broken-down mess, weighed down by guilt and trauma. The haunted look in his eyes at the end of the film — you can’t teach that kind of talent. Opposite Kadokawa is the sadistic Osamu Ida, a perpetually smiling, friendly sociopath (loosely based on Prince Yasuhiko Asaka, who commanded Japanese forces in the assault on Nanking) who gleefully participates in the violence his soldiers perpetrate. Ida is in many ways the moustache twirling villain. There’s a lot of parallels between him and the stereotypical sociopathic Nazi officer, who delights in misery and often will give impossible choices as examples of his magnanimity. What’s striking about him is how he’s often smiling as he commits atrocity and cruelty after atrocity and cruelty.
The film opens, in black and white, a la Schindler’s List, with Kadokawa quietly resting in the trenches outside the city just before the attack. It’s positioned in contrast with Lieutenant Lu, who stands with a few other officers to keep Chinese troops from fleeing. The first half hour of the film is one of the most beautifully choreographed war sequences I’ve ever seen. It’s utter chaos, with ambushes and vicious street fighting, but as the city falls down around everyone’s ears, a few storylines begin to emerge. The majority of the opener focuses on Lu and Kadokawa as Lu and his men stage a last stand before surrendering, and Kadokawa’s squad stumbles upon a number of civilians hiding in a church. Alone, he runs down the street, screaming for backup.
In the background are the primary cast on the Chinese side, focusing largely on John Rabe’s secretary, Mr. Tang, and his family. Seeing what’s coming, Rabe and his staff work to establish a safe zone that forms the primary stage for the rest of the film. As the city falls, Japanese atrocities are displayed in detail, like a museum exhibit for human misery. The mass execution of Chinese combatants is just as choreographed as the war scenes immediately before; in another film, this would be the finale, but they’re just warming up. The Japanese frequently invade the safe zone for their own purposes; the film does not shy away from graphic depictions of that which gives the horrific siege its most common name, and the plight of comfort women is among the film’s darkest of themes. But in between atrocities, Imperial soldiers are shown carousing while off duty, singing, dancing, telling jokes, playing games. It’s a stark reminder that the monsters who perpetrate atrocities are, themselves, human. This is why Kadokawa is so important as a character, because he puts a name and a face and a personality to an otherwise faceless, monstrous enemy, a human instead of a force of nature. We watch as the orgy of violence around him slowly destroys him. What’s equally disturbing is that he is seemingly the only man on the Japanese side to look around him and think to himself, “this is wrong.” While everyone else treats it like a safari, his conscience eats away at him.
While the film dedicates most of its time to the safe zone, the refugees within, and the people running it, and we can safely name the teacher Jiang, Mr. Tang and to a lesser extent Rabe as protagonists, the film as a whole is arguably about Kadokawa. The film opens with him, and it ends with him. A crucial scene is towards the very end, as the initial occupation nears its conclusion and the Japanese stage a ritual dance to celebrate their conquest and honor their war dead. It’s an ahistorical scene that’s deliberate artistic license on the director’ss part; it’s bizarre, absurd even, but it’s a key moment for Kadokawa as he finds himself screaming, and screaming, and screaming, and nobody notices amidst the shouts of the ritual.
As scenes like this often do, it came to Lu in a dream; this certainly accounts for the seeming dream logic of the scene, one that proves itself to be nightmarish in and of itself through its sheer absurdity in context. Importantly, it’s kadokawa’s breaking point. He’s been slowly unraveling already, but with the last of his innocence gone he’s at the end of his rope. This is perhaps the key moment, the final breaking of a man who’s supposed to be a villain, by all the villainy around him.
This film earned Lu a lot of anger in china, and even death threats. It’s easy to understand the reaction, and not all of it is borne of purely nationalist sentiment. But I think this is one of the most important films of the Pacific theater to ever be made. I compared it to Schindler’s List earlier and I don’t think I’m wrong in making that comparison. Schindler’s List didn’t fuck around with Nazi atrocities either, and it too had a theme of people with consciences doing their best to save people from the evil around them. This is a film about how ordinary people are pushed into committing the worst atrocities, and not only what that does to the victims, but to the perpetrators, in the end the perpetrators destroying themselves as utterly as they destroy their victims. It’s about reiterating an important fact: fascists are human too, and that’s what makes what they do so much worse.