Movies: City of Life and Death * * * *
(15A, limited release)
In late December 1937, after invading Japanese forces had routed Chiang Kai-Shek's ragged auxiliaries and seized the northeastern Chinese city of Nanjing, the Imperal army embarked on one of the most notorious episodes in military history. During the 'Nanjing Massacre', it's estimated that some 300,000 Chinese civilians were slaughtered, and more than 20,000 women raped.
After the war, the Japanese endeavoured to forget about this and many of the other horrors they'd engaged in across greater Asia, but the Chinese never did, and this excellent film from Lu Chuan is a disturbing reminder of the planned atrocity.
Lu was heavily criticised in China for depicting one of the Japanese soldiers sympathetically, but surely it's not beyond the bounds of possibility that some of the invading troops were horrified by what they saw going on around them.
As the film opens, an advance force of the Imperial army is massed at Nanjing's Guanghua Gate, and when the Chinese defenders panic and flee, the city falls. Some brave irregulars remain to fight, and for several days Commander Lu (Liu Ye) and his followers engage in guerilla fighting. But when the remaining defenders finally surrender, we get a disturbing glimpse of what's in store for the entire city.
Instead of being sent to camps, they're shot en masse, herded into buildings which are set on fire and even buried alive. And once the Japanese have wiped them out, they turn their attention to the quaking civilians. Egged on by amused generals, the soldiers then embark on an orgy of debasement that includes mass rape and the murder of women and children.
Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi) is the Japanese soldier who can't believe what he's seeing, but when he finally decides to do something it's way too late.
Lu Chuan's film is unflinching in its depiction of all this, and his artful framing and choice to film in black and white somehow adds to the magnitude of this glaring crime against humanity.
His sparse dialogue and overpowering imagery almost render his subtitles redundant, and I doubt this devastating epic will be packing them in at the Tokyo multiplexes.