CITY OF LIFE AND DEATH
Every now and then a war film comes along that quite simply blows you away, City of Life and Death is one of those films! Directed by Chuan Lu the film is presented in its native languages (Chinese, Japanese and German), is black and white, and is quite possibly the most authentic war film I have seen since Saving Private Ryan. I cannot praise the efforts of the director, the producer, the cast and everyone involved enough. This is not only the best war film I have seen for more than 10 years, but its quite possibly my second favorite film of the year (behind Inception, naturally!).
1937, Nanking, China. The Japanese have invaded the capitol and will stop at nothing to win. We begin the film as the Japanese invade and during the opening credits we are given a brief over-view of what is happening. This is probably the films only sore point for me as the gorgeous looking, almost diary pages explaining what is going on move a bit too fast and I found myself having to pause or go back to catch what is said. But, compared to the brilliance that will follow, who cares if you have to press one silly little button! To be fair, I should really have known the story anyway.
Nanking is a mess, the Japs have literally destroyed the city and an alert is out to arrest any Chinese soldiers. We join a group of Chinese soldiers as they try to make one last stand, or get out alive. A lot of the action is almost Point-of-View, or the camera is very close to those involved, so you really do feel like you are there with them. What ensues, as the Japanese move in for the kill, is an incredibly tense 15 minutes running battle as the Chinese hide behind any pillar or pile of rubble they can find, whilst taking shots at their enemies. Bullets fly past, bombs go off, bits of ruble go flying everywhere. Bullets hit soldiers with vicious realism and the director, in a genius move, cancels all music to allow for a full scale experience in “War is Hell”. Not since the opening beach scene of Saving Private Ryan have I been so lost in a battle, so engrossed, so over-powered by such brilliance and precision! The actors give it their all, and each one, extra or not, give one hell of a performance. You know, I found myself questioning as to whether the director was actually shooting the poor fellas, its THAT good!
Moving on, the Japanese take control and rule with a vicious iron fist. After the onslaught of the gun fight we are given absolutely NO room to breath. The director takes us on a chilling and utterly devastating trip into just how horrible war can be. Over 500 Chinese locals are rounded up here, another 300 hundred are marched to the beach, others are rounded up and put into a large barn with the doors nailed shut, some are lined up and tied up against a wall. If you have a weak stomach, now is the time to look away or leave the room. In one vicious, sickening blow, all the “prisoners” are disposed of. The 500 are asked to turn around and are cowardly shot from behind, the guys marched to the sea shot, the barn set on fire and bombs thrown in, the people lined up are stabbed with bayonets. The black and white makes this all the more chilling, cold and horrific. The authenticity of this impressive film is TOO good. Music kicks in to give a stronger effect (as if you needed it) and I was left speechless, disturbed and, well, a bit frightened really.
A film came out earlier this year telling the story of the German John Rabe, and he too makes an appearance here. He was the guy who decided to help as many Chinese as he could and set up a refugee camp with orders, from the Germans, that the Japanese were not to interfere. He was seen as a Saint, the Chinese worshipped him, as did his interpreter, Mr Tang. Mr Tang also had a wife and daughter caught up in all the mess and living as refugees, but more on that later. John Rabe helped as best he could, but the Japanese would not always listen, leading to some confrontations. Rabe also had the help of an American couple. I hate to admit this, but mixed in with all this realism and chaos were these 2 with strong American accents and I must say I found them quite irritating!
The Japanese have had some women sent over to help their sexual needs. A warmingly distracting story follows between one of the Jap soldiers and the prostitute. He is a virgin and his first night does not go to plan, however he grows fond of the girl and begins bringing her gifts. Getting ill and disease ridden, the Japanese decide they will help themselves to 100 Chinese refuges to satisfy their needs. Before organizing these refugees, Japanese soldiers come to the refugee camp and rape as many women as they can find, most of them still in their teens. Again, this is sickening to watch and its hard to believe these things actually happened, but the sorry thing is, they did. John Rabe tries to stop the release of 100 women, but fails and the Japanese again show their strength by barging their way in and trying to take what they want. As if this film could not shock anymore, a startling scene occurs as the Japanese make their point to take control. I will not say what, but the reaction of the person who is effected by what happens says it all, it brought tears to my eyes, its so sad, so horrible, but handled by a director clearly in control and who knows when to stop or make something not completely in your face, but just enough to make his point.
The Germans ask John Rabe to leave, and things literally become desperate for the Chinese. The Germans believe his actions are causing issues with their loyalties to Japan. As the great man leaves, you really feel it for the Chinese. While all these torturous events happen to the Chinese, we are still following the Japanese army, and getting to know some of its characters too. Some are struggling learning their victory dance, the guy falling in love, cold, quiet faces stare into the bloody mess, or out to sea as they contemplate their actions and, possibly, if they’ve gone too far. That’s the brilliance here, and I mean total fucking God-worthy genius! Generally in war films, or most films for that matter, you side with the good guys, you chose the weaker side, or the side you feel has been hard done by. Only in horrors do you tend to route for the bad guy, because this is how the films are presented to us, there is a subconscious acceptance to chose the people we know are right. Not here, Chuan Lu respectfully leaves things open for discussion. Yes what that Japanese did was wrong, and yes they went too far, but this is war, and its no fairytale, its real and City of Life and Death is as real as it gets. You don’t really have sides forced upon you, both Chinese and Japanese are given matching screen time, and both are shown in a good light, passionate, understanding, scared, bullied and hurt. Yes there are some guys you know damn well are doing wrong, but this is more about the soldiers not the leaders, and its clear that some of them would have preferred not to have been involved. The fact Chuan Lu forces nothing on you and allows you to decide is masterful, and I give him full credit for being so brave to take this approach.
As the films draws to its climatic, heartfelt and incredibly moving conclusion you will find yourself worn out, your emotions will have felt like they have been through a fuckin meat grinder! In the all but final scene, the Japanese prepare for their victory dance and trust me,you have to see this to believe it. The famous Japanese drummers set up on a huge float and start their drums, and the army carry them and the dancers dance all the way through Nanking. The drummers are scary even on a good day, but it’s the dancers that will scare you to death. Looking possessed, they perform a bizarre ritual victory dance and it goes on for a good five minutes. The camera expertly weaves in and out, and then hovers from above and then from actually in with the dancers themselves, again, you actually feel like you are a part of it. Unsettling is not even close to explaining how terrifying this is, its like your worst nightmare, but its fascinating to watch, truly truly mesmerizing and this scene alone is up there with some of THE most powerful stuff I have ever witnessed! One final emotional kick in the guts follows as we see the all but too much effect of war and what it has on one soldier. We also get a beautifully uplifting final scene as one refugee breaks free with a young boy and the 2 laugh and run through a field in total ecstasy of being free. Its beautiful and is guaranteed to yank those heart-strings and bring tears of joy and a massive warm feeling of warmth.
An exceptional way to end a films which has taken you on one hell of a ride, emotions up and down, and totally shocked are how incredible what you have just witnessed actually was. A superb film, a fantastic film, an honest and authentic study of a small piece of history that went down as one of the worst crimes ever against a race. Believe me, this is not an easy watch, but an essential one. Receiving excellent reviews but only on a small release, its films like this that often get missed due to a small marketing campaign. I urge you all to see this, it deserves to go down in history as quite simply one of the finest war movies ever made!
[pt-filmtitle]City of Life and Death[/pt-filmtitle]