City of Life and Death
Reviewed by Kevin B. Lee

Produced by Sanping Han and Steffen Wild; written and directed by Lu Chuan; cinematography by Yu Cao; edited by Yun Teng; starring Liu Ye, Fan Wei, Hideo Nakaizumi, and Gao Yuanyuan. B&W, 132 mins., Mandarin with English subtitles. A National Geographic World Films release, www.nationalgeographic.com/movies.

“The reason why any work of art will reveal—somewhere—areas or levels of incoherence is that so many things feed into it which are beyond the artist’s conscious control—not only his personal unconscious (the possible presence of which even the most traditional criticism has been ready to acknowledge), but the cultural assumptions of his society. Those cultural assumptions themselves have a long history (from the immediate social-political realities back through the entire history of humanity) and will themselves contain, with difficulty, accumulated strains, tensions and contradictions.”

-Robin Wood, “The Incoherent Text”

The opening credits of City of Life and Death feature a series of postcards whose text sets up the scenario, the Japanese army’s invasion of Nanjing in 1937. The author of these postcards is never identified; what seems to matter more is that they’re written in English. What do these postcards mean for Chinese viewers, the film's presumed primary audience? Do they endow the historical tragedy about to be related yet again (this is, by my count, the fifteenth Chinese narrative feature made on the Nanjing Massacre) with a new, exotic sense of the foreign? Or are they addressed to an audience beyond China, where English is lingua franca? For either audience, do English words legitimize the history being written in ways that Chinese characters wouldn’t, by elevating them to global legibility, just as the conscious use of black and white conveys a universally-recognized aura of historical authenticity? Even more complicating is the issue of these postcards being, not historical artifacts, but CGI animations, whose ink appears magically without a pen, stamped with digital postmarks. Does this high-tech gloss further qualify the film’s authority as a technically masterful (read: Hollywood) cinematic work to recount history with due competence? These postcards are less about the Nanjing Massacre than about the film’s aspiration to make it matter to a global audience in ways it hasn’t before.

It’s the same aspiration I witnessed as an English teacher in China over ten years ago, when I screened Schindler’s List on a class movie night. My students were awed by the powerful spectacle of mass human slaughter, even as they were confused by the film’s lack of background explanation for the cause of the Holocaust. The best they could figure out was to relate it to the Nanjing Massacre, in which an estimated 200,000 Chinese citizens and prisoners of war were raped and killed by Japanese occupiers. One student said to me, with unforgettable determination, “There should be a Schindler’s List for the Nanjing Massacre.”

Watching City of Life and Death, I felt as if director Lu Chuan had magically heard my student, though it’s not surprising for a director to take inspiration from a movie that earned $300 million worldwide, won seven Oscars, and took a historical tragedy to greater levels of global awareness. Such an ideal package of profit, prestige, and political influence is exactly what the Chinese film industry is seeking, having struggled over much of the past decade to build up a domestic audience for its products. A recent NPR interview with Zhang Yimou makes the industry’s struggle sound like the second coming of the Nanjing Massacre: “If [Chinese audiences] lose their interest in domestic movies, we will be in big trouble. Then China’s film market will be occupied by foreigners. Hong Kong, Taiwan and Korea are examples of this. The mainland is our last battleground.”

What better way to beat Hollywood at its own globalization game than to appropriate the techniques of no less an icon than Spielberg. In many ways, Lu proves himself an apt pupil, taking Spielberg’s history-as-spectacle approach even further. Lu dispatches exposition in mere seconds with those postcards and leaps into a blood-pumping battle scene. The audience is thus primed for the long haul to follow, a near-unrelenting succession of rapes and other atrocities. He packages these horrors for more agreeable consumption by distilling them into a series of moral scenarios: Should a man sell out an entire city to save his family? (Answer: an emphatic no.) If he does sell out, is there a chance for redemption? (Answer: an improbable, melodramatic yes.) Should a woman be killed to spare her from unspeakable acts of rape and torture? (Answer: if it makes for a climactic movie moment, absolutely.) The emerging moral sensibility, again borrowed from Nineties Spielberg, conveys more a dramatic than a humanist imperative.

Another aspect Lu’s film shares with Schindler’s List, one that is unprecedented for a Chinese film on Nanjing, is the attempt to humanize the presumed villains of the story. With Spielberg, it was Nazi businessman-turned-savior Oskar Schindler, as well as SS Officer Goeth, played by Ralph Fiennes as articulate and thoughtful yet tragically consumed with racial hate. With Lu, it’s Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi), a laconic Japanese soldier who gradually internalizes the horrors committed by his countrymen. For many Chinese audiences, to cast a Japanese so prominently in a national tragedy amounts to an act of treason, and there is no shortage of such accusations found on Chinese Websites, even on Lu Chuan’s blog.

And yet, if it weren’t for the inclusion of a Japanese viewpoint, the film likely wouldn’t have been made. In the last few years no less than five film projects have been planned on the Nanjing Massacre, many to coincide with the seventieth anniversary of the event. Two years after the anniversary, only two of these projects have passed the state censors, who are ever mindful of not disrupting relations with Japan, one of China’s major trade partners. Lu Chuan has even expressed the somewhat Quixotic desire to release the film in Japan, where right-wing factions still maintain that the Nanjing Massacre never happened.

The imperative to honor the longstanding domestic account of the tragedy, offset by the desire to avoid fraying international ties, and further complicated by the desire to appeal to a global audience with its own expectations of art-house entertainment, makes for one of the most compelling filmmaking gauntlets to be found. These three agendas—political, cultural, commercial—wage a battle within City of Life and Death that’s as compelling as the one the film depicts. The film certainly qualifies as an “incoherent text,” to borrow Robin Wood’s phrase, informed by competing social ideologies and commercial ambitions that result in a work of fascinating dissonance.

The film’s positioning of a Japanese as a main character signifies a critical trade-off: Lu’s desire to elevate the film from a mere “Chinese” tragedy to one of global importance—a film worthy of Spielberg (or more to the point, Spielberg’s audiences). Unlike Spielberg’s film, there is no dominant protagonist, but instead a tapestry of individuals with loosely intertwining fates. In one interview for Sanlian Weekly Lu accounts for his approach: “I was not making a film about the Nanjing Massacre anymore, I felt that I was filming how people understand the nature of war. It is possible to go beyond Chinese and Japanese, and to reach something universal—how people face war and the relationship between people and war.”

Lu’s weaving of contending viewpoints into a coherent master narrative comes closest to succeeding during the opening battle sequence. The action is initially depicted from the Japanese soldiers’ point of view, but gradually shifts to the Chinese, and then back to the Japanese. Even Spielberg wasn’t able to achieve such fluid movement across perspectives in comparable scenes from Saving Private Ryan, from which this sequence otherwise cribs liberally for its vérité battle camerawork.

But as the sequence unfolds, the film strangely subverts its director’s own stated assertion of his film’s nonpartisan point of view. While the Japanese are an indistinguishable unit crawling across the dirt in identical uniforms, the Chinese are a ragtag group of underdogs, whose distinct, individualized appearances are apparent even in fleeting glimpses. Their stoic expressions—tersely cocking and loading guns, moving swiftly across positions—are the spare, seductive gestures of action-movie heroes. What’s striking and quite different from traditional Chinese propaganda movies is how these cues that steer viewer sympathy are conveyed through a swift but subtle succession of visuals in place of overtly ideological narration or dialog.

The sequence ultimately reveals the film to be less a radical shift from the longstanding Chinese-centric Nanjing Massacre narrative than a new, more suggestive approach to conveying pro-Chinese ideology, cloaked in the guise of simulated multiplicity. This presumption of even-handedness supports Shelly Kraicer’s description of the film in Cinema Scope as a reflection of China’s current ideological approach to the geopolitical landscape, conveying a liberal humanist regard for the world while fundamentally promoting its national interests. Unfortunately, most of what follows is far less subtle. By the time we get to a spectacularly choreographed scene, in which a massive montage of slaughter details the various methods used to execute thousands of Chinese, it seems that the depiction of the “Japanese side” is a bluff. There’s no account of these events from a Japanese perspective concerning either the preparation involved or the emotional effects on the soldiers. The soldiers are as depersonalized a force of death as a tsunami or robot army in a Hollywood blockbuster.

But the real Achilles heel is Kadokawa, the main Japanese character. To Spielberg’s credit, his films feature central protagonists whose internal moral struggles are closely intertwined with the historical chaos that engulfs them. In contrast, Kadokawa comes across as a daydreaming innocent whose eyes are constantly taking in what his conscience can’t seem to fully process. His behavioral arc follows no clear pattern: early on, he is visibly shaken by the sight of several women mercilessly gunned down, but moments later is happily bathing his commanding officer. His guilelessness is taken to the extreme when he makes repeated visits to a Japanese comfort woman, calling her his “wife” while seemingly ignorant of the physical and mental deterioration she suffers as a result of servicing countless men.

Is his childlike obtuseness a way of absolving a projected Japanese audience, suggesting that both are guileless witnesses to atrocities beyond their control or comprehension? If so, that innocence is upheld at the cost of narrative coherence. Kadokawa floats like a virtual spectator, barely communicating with anyone, including his comrades, whose actions are almost completely irreconcilable with Kadokawa’s presumed innocence. They rape and kill without remorse, the quintessential “Japanese Devils” as featured in numerous Chinese films. But there are other scenes where they laugh, dance and bathe on the beach like young boys on spring break.

At best this chasm between representations may reflect the soldiers’ alienation from their own actions. But there’s no greater contextualization of this condition—no sense, for instance, of the extent to which their misconduct is tolerated or actively encouraged by their command. Here it seems Lu is trapped between modes of representation (stereotypes reflecting nationalist outrage vs. empathetic humanist images) in the service of two different audiences, one domestic and the other foreign. The degree of narrative incoherence between these two modes may reflect their degree of sociological and ideological irreconcilability.

I wager that it is possible for a film to reconcile these contending depictions of the Japanese soldiers, but it would require a greater investment in creating three-dimensional characters than Lu seems willing or able to muster. The inconsistent and thin characterization of the soldiers is but one instance of the film’s greater weakness: its inability to present people in a manner other than as social types, and history in a manner other than as a series of melodramatic moral scenarios. This is reflected in the film’s handling of what could have been its major virtue—its potential as a feminist story. As most of the Chinese men are slaughtered before the halfway point, the fate of the women becomes an emerging theme. Some provocations are made on a narrative level, such as prostitutes asserting greater patriotism than the civic leaders in sacrificing their bodies to save others. But such scenes are treated as fodder for melodrama, with little attention to character. These women are as underdeveloped in their own way as the Japanese soldiers. Portrayed more as symbols of female virtue than as individuals, their ordeal plays less to a sense of an emerging feminist consciousness than to patriarchal shame over the sight of women being debased.

But if Lu Chuan paints with the broad brush of sensational imagery and recognizable types fueling conventional attitudes, it may come out of a canny regard for appealing to a universal audience. For all of its self-proclaimed advancement of the Nanjing Massacre story into controversial new territory, the film’s insistence on the primacy of images is strangely regressive (indeed, the final image of a child running across a field is nothing less than a wish for total regression). Perhaps this regression is Lu’s only option to overturn the film’s structural and ideological inconsistencies. A field covered with hundreds of corpses; decapitated heads hanging from a tree; a naked female body lying twisted on the street: these images evoke monumental awe, emphasize universal sentiments of humanist horror and shame, and ultimately, seek sympathy and reverence for the Chinese, with a legacy of suffering that informs their present identity and policies. In this way, City of Life and Death offers a model for what may be a coming wave of films that try to reconcile China’s legacy of recriminatory sentiment towards foreign powers with its emerging role as a leader—both ideologically and commercially—in the world cultural marketplace.1 It may be a matter as simple as the ability of its images to translate beyond any language.

Kevin B. Lee is a critic, filmmaker, and programming executive for dGenerate Films, a digital distribution channel for Chinese independent films. He contributes to Time Out New York, Cineaste, The Moving Image Source, and his blog Shooting Down Pictures, among other publications.

For more information about City of Life and Death, visit the official website, here.

  1. While City of Life and Death suggests the emergence of a globally-marketable strain of Chinese ideological cinema, its own fate in the first months of 2010 indicate significant obstacles that such films face in reaching an audience outside China. Chinese authorities withdrew the film from the Palm Springs International Film Festival in protest of the Festival's programming of The Sun Behind the Clouds by Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam, a documentary of the Dalai Lama (details here). Later, when the film was withdrawn from the calendar of New York's Film Forum theater, reports from the New York Times and Indiewire cited the Palm Springs controversy as if the incident had some connection to what otherwise was reported as a delay in contractual settlement between the Chinese rights holders and National Geographic Entertainment, the would-be North American distributor. It's unclear to what extent the delay in release is a matter of business or politics, but both factors have already played a role in shaping the film's international distribution, just as I have described their importance in its production.