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南京!南京! (2009)
City of Life and Death

Reviewed by: mrblue
Date: 09/24/2010

A gritty and downbeat look at the Japanese occupation of the Chinese capital of Nanking during 1937 (a period that would come to be known as the "Nanking massacre" or the "rape of Nanking") Lu Chuan's Mainland/Hong Kong co-production City of Life and Death isn't exactly light entertainment for the whole family. And even though -- like many films based on historical events -- some liberties might have been taken with the facts, this is still a very powerful cinematic experience.

Reviewer Score: 7

Reviewed by: cal42
Date: 09/21/2010
Summary: Flies too close to cliche

In 2005, Japan published textbooks playing down the scale of destruction their country inflicted upon Nanking (the former capital of China now known as Nanjing), leading to a flare up of hostility between the citizens of the two nations. CITY OF LIFE AND DEATH tells the story of “the Rape of Nanking”, in which 300,000 innocent Chinese perished at the hands of a brutal military regime.

Of course, this being 2009 (at least it was when the film was made) and with the Chinese government evidently not wanting to fan the flames any further, there are some concessions to the old enemy – the story is partly told through the eyes of a young idealistic Japanese soldier called Kadokawa (Nakaizumi Hideo). When Kadokawa accidentally kills a group of civilians at the start of the movie, his conscience begins to trouble him, and as he sees more atrocities, his innocence is lost forever.

The film prefers to leave the brutal military largely faceless, instead concentrating on the victims and those trying to stop the massacre. One of which is German businessman John Rabe (John Paisley), a full member of the Nazi party but who, it has to be said, was a thoroughly decent man, even using his Nazi credentials to try to halt the slaughter (try to get your head around THAT).

CITY OF LIFE AND DEATH is a very well made film, but it flies too close to cliché in its characterisation, script and even visual style (it’s all in black and white). Furthermore, director Lu Chuan uses on-screen postcards to update the viewer on events between scenes – a very clumsy and detracting device indeed (not to mention that fact that some of the cards are extremely hard to read). There’s no doubting that the film’s subject is extremely horrific, but the cumulative effect is numbing. There is only so much suffering you can watch without becoming unaffected by what you see – which may be why such atrocities are possible in the first place. That being said, the victory dance through the ruined city of Nanking is truly chilling.

Although it may never be possible to know for sure the extent of the devastation of Nanking, one only has to look at the documented facts of other atrocities to realise that the events depicted in CITY OF LIFE AND DEATH are only too plausible.

Reviewer Score: 5

Reviewed by: dandan
Date: 12/28/2009
Summary: nanking! nanking!

in december 1937, japanese forces besieged and took control of nanking, then the chinese capitol city. over the next six weeks, it is estimated that, between 260,000 and 300,000 people were massacred (including over 50,000 captured chinese soldiers) and between 20,000 and 80,000 women were raped.

'city of life and death' tells the story of the massacre of nanking. focussing on the events of the first few days of the occupation, then shifting focus to later events. focussing on kadokawa (hideo nakaizumi), a young japanese soldier, who seems comparatively innocent and naive, as the events unfurling before his eyes disturb and upset him. the film also shows the events that occur round characters such miss jiang (gao yuan-yuan), a selection of chinese soldiers, mr tang (fan wei), and his family, who work for john rabe (john paisley), a german businessman and nazi party member, who was instrumental in establishing and leading the nanking safety zone: a demilitarized zone in the city, which saved the lives on many thousands of chinese.

as soon as i heard that lu chuan was directing this film, i wanted to see it; his two previous works 'the missing gun' and 'ke ke xi li : mountain patrol' were both outstanding pieces of cinema. however, successfully directing a film about the nanking massacre is a different prospect all together; the pressure to tell the story, respectfully, accurately and without being accused of making propaganda, must be considerable. not to mention the fact that the film needs cover so much, whilst it must also maintaining an engaging narrative thread. six months getting the script approved and six months having the finished film approved by the chinese film bureau can't have been easy either...

still, lu does as good a job as possible; sure, there's a few moments which are a little too contrived, but the film, on the whole, is a pretty solid, balanced narrative. it is wholly upsetting at times, even if it never quite reaches the levels of depravity, eye witness sources have written about, concerning the actions of the japanese army during this period. still, what it shows is a brutal, inhuman 'rape' of a city and its imprisoned inhabitants, by an occupying force. for me, the film succeeds by having having kadokawa at its centre: a soldier and one who has killed, but one who cannot empathise with the actions of his peers. upon it's release, the film earned criticism, from chinese audiences, for lu's sympathetic depiction of this japanese soldier. hideo nakaizumi's performance is suitably solid.

i think i'll need to watch it again to come to more of a conclusion.