What do you call a film experience that, while interesting and seen on handsome black & white film, you would only do again under duress: “City of Life and Death.” (The title is “Nanjing! Nanjing!” in Chinese.) This film dramatizes the epochal trauma to which Japan subjected their vanquished, the Chinese from December 1937 to March 1938.
This is a heck of a hurdle for an American audience, and especially for young people: American audiences have heard of World Wars I and II, and they remember that those wars were bookends for the Great Depression.
Few people probably remember that while the United States’ experience in World War I began in 1917, while Europe began three years earlier. But it’s too much to hope that most viewers know anything about the Rape or Massacre of Nanking, China, which occurred in 1937-38 – between those big wars, and after our Great Depression. This historical Chinese war film, “City of Life and Death,” is part of Minnesota Film Arts’ festival, In Search of Asia.
While this story isn’t about Nazism, it still is: it shows the Rape of Nanking. The first 30- or so minutes resemble Newsreel footage of the London Blitz: the depraved barbarism to which the Japanese subjected their Chinese foes leaves nary a whole build left resting upright or free from tumult. Basically switch out the Nazis for the Japanese and London, England for Nanking, China. Few people expect to be entertained by Holocaust stories, and only some by war stories, if they are brave enough to portray unromantic realities. “Schindler’s List” is exceptional; it provided warmth and humor to lighten that which is a separate 20-Century horror story.
While a film lover can, in theory, revere or laud foreign countries’ differing narrative and grammatical techniques, the reality can send an American’s mind spinning:
- “City of Life and Death” takes at least 40-minutes to reveal its incidental ensemble of personalities. Only half of the ensemble has names that we hear. Also, it’s impossible to distinguish between the Japanese and the Chinese, no patches or flags until the middle. It’s confusing.
- And there are three or four title cards, which while stylish and a refreshing hand-written alternative to the usual, are hard to read and remember before the film cuts to the next scene. “City of Life and Death” lacks an obvious narrative structure, where the acts and various plot points are made obvious.
- While this story is a little over two hours, it feels, these obstacles make it feel like two and one-half.
Who does the film-maker want or expect to watch this? Or how small of an audience does the film-maker want? Watching this is a chore: like watching “Schindler’s List” with only maybe 10% of its warmth and humor or like gutting it out through the daunting, unrelenting misery that the McCourt family must endure in the first third of “Angela’s Ashes.” The Rape of Nanking is a fascinating topic, especially for people who love history. But why would someone want to watch this?!
It’s remarkable and a controversy in China: that a Japanese grunt soldier, Sergeant Kadokawa, [Hideo Nakaizumi] and others, is shown beyond villainy, as human.
Kadokawa is one of the few characters who has what resembles a subplot. He comes of-age in this hellish time. In the end, his regrets consume him. For example, two survivors of one of the early and many massacre scenes, a man and a boy, who are almost forgotten by the film-makers and the audiences, reappear in the last half hour. He lets the boy and man go to live on, granting them a reprieve from a proforma death sentence. Before doing so, Kadokawa says to the sky, “Life is harder than death.”
There was also the assistant to Nanking’s answer to Oscar Schindler in Germany makes a strong, defiant stand. After having witnessed his child’s murder and the violation of his wife, he tells his chief executioner “My wife is pregnant again,” with a resigned, although satisfied smile. A beat later, he is dead.
“City of Life and Death” probably appeals to a narrow niche of film-lovers who don’t trip over the kinds of obstacles in a story that were listed above. Other films have tackled this massacre tale and have satisfied their viewers.
If we were to rate this: 2 out of 5.