Tuesday, February 23, 2010

City of Life and Death (2009)

City of Life and Death (2009)

February 24th, 7:00PM in Garland 104 (2441 E. Hartford)

The Nanjing Massacre, or as it more popularly known, The Rape of Nanking is a subject that has been attempted as material numerous films and documentaries. From the earliest of these, Frank Capra’s The Battle of China (1944) an instalment in his Why We Fight documentary series to later examples, there have been at least nine films centering on the events. It might surprise many to hear that this 2009 Mainland Chinese entry is easily one of the most balanced and reflective of these films.
It might be appropriate to go over the most commonly excepted view the events of the massacre. In early December of 1937 elements of the Japanese army attacked and captured the city of Nanjing, formerly the capital of the Republic of China under the Nationalists. The Japanese were able to take the city after a short battle, capturing a large number of surrendered Chinese troops. One explanation for what happened next involves a sense of frustration on the part of the Japanese because in previous months they had been bogged down in costly urban combat with Nationalist forces, another involves a general lack of discipline and clear direction from the upper command structure. Either way, the Japanese began mass executions of Chinese prisoners of war. The likely number sits at around 57,000 and this action was only the beginning.
In a six week period, Japanese soldiers committed a series of atrocities that in both scale and variety seem beyond comprehension. The lowest estimates are those of the Japanese which range between 100,000-200,000 deaths. Estimates of around 300,000 deaths are generally held by the Chinese and depending on the time period cited and including the general area around the city an estimate of more then 400,000 is possible. The range of atrocities that are leveled against the Japanese army includes burying people alive, indiscriminate machine gunning of crowds, the use of explosives, bayonets, swords, fire and much more.

The term Rape of Nanking also has a very literal meaning. The official estimate made by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East is 20,000 rapes, but subsequent estimates range from 40,000 to 80,000. The rapes were viewed as a way of punishing the population and they included infants as well as the elderly. A great number of women were literally raped to death, that is gang raped until blood loss or beatings reached a fatal level. One of the few positive events surrounding the massacre involved the Nanking Safety Zone. It was a space set up by a group of foreigners who resided in the city and lead by Nazi representative John Rabe. It was able to offer citizens a refuge where the Japanese army was largely denied access. Rabe was eventually recalled to Germany because the Nazi leadership viewed his actions in trying to save Chinese civilians and document the events as detrimental to their relationship to the Empire of Japan.

The nature of these facts illustrates how any representation of these events can cause heated passions. Due to the chaos of the later Chinese Civil War and the establishment of the Peoples Republic of China, many aspects of the massacre were played down for decades. But in recent years historical debate has intensified and the events have become reasonably well known in the West as well as the Far East. One aspect of this comes from an increasingly high profile campaign by Japanese cultural conservatives to claim that no massacre had ever taken place. This includes the production of the film The Truth About Nanking (2007) funded through donations, which denies the events of the massacre. That same year the American documentary Nanking premiered in commemoration of the seventieth anniversary of the massacre. Later in 2009 two more high profile films would follow, both dealing with similar settings in the midst of the massacre. Besides City, the other film is entitled John Rabe, a German, French and Chinese co-production centering on the events taking place in the Nanking Safety Zone and focusing on the tittle character.
City of Life and Death also centers on the Nanking Safety Zone, but not surprisingly John Rabe becomes a secondary character in favor of a focus on Chinese civilians. What might be a shock is that there are a handful of major Japanese characters, several of which are generally portrayed in a positive, or at the very least a sympathetic way. The films story deals with a range of characters including civilians, foreigners, Japanese officers and enlisted men, nationalist soldiers and both Japanese and Chinese comfort women. Many Japanese soldiers are shown as either genuinely disturbed by the events, or reluctantly falling down a slippery slope of actions that lead to the horrific acts. This dimension was enough to cause protests by some Chinese groups over the films tone. But it reflects well upon the state of Chinese cinema and culture that such a film can now be produced and widely viewed.

The film is also far less graphic then a viewer might expect, although that is not to say that disturbing imagery is absent, in fact it is abundant. The focus of the film is primarily on the events taking place in the Nanking Safety Zone with a approach that seems to attempt to put the viewer in the shoes of someone finding themselves in a hell on earth where nothing is certain and danger is everywhere. The choice of black and white gives the film a raw, documentary quality that color cinematography would find a challenge to equal. I feel that City of Life and Death will be remembered as an important film in both the popular conception of the massacre and the continuing cultural dialog about these haunting events from the not distant past.

Mainland China, Director Lu Chuan, Cast Liu Ye, Gao Yuan-Yuan, Qin Lan and Fan Wei, 135 minutes, in Mandarin, Japanese and English with English subtitles

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