As I prepare to write a review of City of Life and Death, the latest dramatization of the Rape of Nanking — oddly enough, it’s just barely the latest: German director Florian Gallenberger’s John Rabe was released two weeks earlier — I am beginning to wonder if there isn’t some value in possibly ‘getting over’ all of the horrible things the Japanese did during World War II. Norman Thomas referred to Nagasaki as “the greatest single atrocity of a very cruel war”; to this day, the question of whether the Americans should have dropped “the second bomb” is still widely discussed, with perhaps not enough attention paid to the long-term effects of the bombings upon Japanese identity. Lu Chuan’s film is only superficially a guilt- and pathos-laden elegy for the victims of the Nanking Massacre, but also just as much a study of pre-Hiroshima/Nagasaki Japanese masculinity.
Concluding City of Life and Death is a sequence depicting a Japanese military ceremony commemorating the siege of the Chinese Republic’s then-capital, and it is during this sequence that the unending cruelty and brutality of the preceding two hours begin to make sense: after presenting, in the expected manner of a proscenium, the pageant, replete with frenetic dancing and the thunderous pounding of taiko, Lu shifts his attention to the faces of the fervently possessed young soldiers, stoked into a violent frenzy by these awesome, destructive symbols. As the concept of a “mass rape” is almost too horrible to even imagine, let alone see acted out in a film, it becomes necessary to justify Lu’s interest in these scenes, and one way of doing this — which he appears to strongly encourage — is to view them as aggressive masculine bonding rituals affirming of the values of Imperial Japan and “State Shinto”-fueled nationalism, values, in turn, attenuated with the end of the war, the “neutering” effect of the second bombing on Nagasaki. That Lu is at least willing to pose, if not able to answer, questions about the sociological implications of this kind of evil, and not merely the terrifying poetics of its machinations, is what makes his film great, as well as unique.
The Nanking story is told through the eyes of a number of variously doomed characters representing various sides of the Second Sino-Japanese War: Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi), the obligatory “young empathic enemy soldier”; the Saint Teresa figure, Chinese schoolteacher Ms. Jiang (Gao Yuanyuan), whom the theretofore nightmarishly opprobrious Commanda Ida (Ryu Kohata) spares the inhumanity of gang rape by executing her; the tormented and ultimately self-sacrificing Mr. Fang (Fan Wei, whose performance here can only be described as godlike; will bring the stubbornest of Japanese revisionist historians to tears on multiple occasions), the Chinese secretary to John Rabe (John Paisley), the German businessman and Nazi party-member with a heart of gold who helped establish the Nanking Safety Zone, saving the lives of over 200,000 Chinese refugees. While the film is, as I mentioned, at times unbearably difficult to sit through — and this diffusion of sympathies makes it even more so — that it features, and exploits, this embarrassment of real-life heroic figures also renders it immensely engaging. The film’s early (hyper-violent) combat sequences are also commendable for their intense, fluid choreography; chilling, atmospheric sound design; and only occasional lapses into post-Saving Private Ryan cinéma vérité immoderation.