City of Life and Death: should be at the top of your must-see list this week

Correction, 09.22.11: : Landmark Shattuck is not screening City of Life and Death as previously stated. Instead it is showing exclusively at San Francisco’s Opera Plaza in San Francisco. Apologies for the error and thank you to reader Matthew Kelleher for alerting us to this fact.


In December 1937, early in the Second Sino-Japanese War, the Imperial Japanese Army occupied the central Chinese city of Nanking (Nanjing). The six weeks that followed became known as The Nanking Massacre or (perhaps more appropriately) The Rape of Nanking—a period during which Japanese soldiers ran rampant, killing as many as 300,000 prisoners-of-war and civilians and raping tens of thousands of women.

The Nanking Massacre is the subject of Chinese director Chuan Lu’s City of Life and Death (originally released as Nanjing! Nanjing!), a 2009 feature finally going on wide release in the U.S. this autumn. The film opens atLandmark’s Shattuck Cinemas San Francisco’s Opera Plaza is Friday, September 23rd, and though not the first dramatic rendering of the historical events it depicts is amongst the best films of the year (2009 or 2011, take your pick).

Lu wisely avoids the siren song of nationalism and uses characters from all sides—including the neutral Occidental inhabitants of the International Safety Zone, an area legally ‘off-limits’ to the invaders—to tell the story. The first character we meet is Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi), an IJA sergeant who continues to follow orders despite being shocked and disgusted by them. Kadokawa’s struggle to square his values with his actions becomes the film’s primary focal point.

The main Chinese characters are missionary schoolteacher Jiang (Beijing Bicycle’s Yuanyuan Gao) and bureaucrat Tang (Wei Fan, perhaps most familiar to western audiences for his role in Xiaogang Feng’s A World Without Thieves). Tang is personal secretary to Safety Zone chairman John Rabe (John Paisley), and a very smart man: he knows when to play dumb, when to go along to get along, and when to buy cigarettes from the Japanese. His closeness to Rabe affords both himself and his family some protection, but when his boss is ordered to leave the enclave Tang is forced to make a difficult choice: save himself or stay in Nanking to look for a missing, presumed dead sibling.

Portrayed brilliantly by Paisley, the real-life Rabe was a diabetic German businessman elected to take charge of the International Zone and the Chinese civilians sheltering within it. He was also a member of the Nazi Party. It is disconcerting to empathize with a character wearing a swastika armband, but the facts are the facts: Rabe’s actions directly or indirectly saved tens of thousands of lives. (After Rabe returned to Germany, he tried to alert Hitler to the crimes of Nanking and then went on the lecture circuit. Unsurprisingly, Der Führer wasn’t interested and the Gestapo soon put a stop to his public talks. He died in near poverty in 1950 and his remains now lie in Nanking.)

Lu’s decision to shoot in black and white lends City of Life and Death both newsreel immediacy and intense realism. At times the film almost becomes a cinematic reproduction of the massacre: if you’ve seen photographs from the period, you will see many of them recreated here by cinematographer Yu Cao, whose obvious familiarity with the source material informs some of the film’s most shocking scenes. One could almost believe he witnessed the horrors of 1937 firsthand.

Reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima, Kon Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plain (Nobi), and the Chinese historical epics of Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, City of Life and Death forgoes the cheesy over-emotive music, manipulative slow-mo deaths, and obligatory Tom Hanks’ appearances we associate with most American war films. It’s one of the two or three best films I’ve seen this year, and should be at the top of your must-see list this week.

John Seal writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...