in december 1937, japanese forces besieged and took control of nanking, then the chinese capitol city. over the next six weeks, it is estimated that, between 260,000 and 300,000 people were massacred (including over 50,000 captured chinese soldiers) and between 20,000 and 80,000 women were raped.
'city of life and death' tells the story of the massacre of nanking. focussing on the events of the first few days of the occupation, then shifting focus to later events. focussing on kadokawa (hideo nakaizumi), a young japanese soldier, who seems comparatively innocent and naive, as the events unfurling before his eyes disturb and upset him. the film also shows the events that occur round characters such miss jiang (gao yuan-yuan), a selection of chinese soldiers, mr tang (fan wei), and his family, who work for john rabe (john paisley), a german businessman and nazi party member, who was instrumental in establishing and leading the nanking safety zone: a demilitarized zone in the city, which saved the lives on many thousands of chinese.
as soon as i heard that lu chuan was directing this film, i wanted to see it; his two previous works 'the missing gun' and 'ke ke xi li : mountain patrol' were both outstanding pieces of cinema. however, successfully directing a film about the nanking massacre is a different prospect all together; the pressure to tell the story, respectfully, accurately and without being accused of making propaganda, must be considerable. not to mention the fact that the film needs cover so much, whilst it must also maintaining an engaging narrative thread. six months getting the script approved and six months having the finished film approved by the chinese film bureau can't have been easy either...
still, lu does as good a job as possible; sure, there's a few moments which are a little too contrived, but the film, on the whole, is a pretty solid, balanced narrative. it is wholly upsetting at times, even if it never quite reaches the levels of depravity, eye witness sources have written about, concerning the actions of the japanese army during this period. still, what it shows is a brutal, inhuman 'rape' of a city and its imprisoned inhabitants, by an occupying force. for me, the film succeeds by having having kadokawa at its centre: a soldier and one who has killed, but one who cannot empathise with the actions of his peers. upon it's release, the film earned criticism, from chinese audiences, for lu's sympathetic depiction of this japanese soldier. hideo nakaizumi's performance is suitably solid.
i think i'll need to watch it again to come to more of a conclusion.
the dvd is hk$89 from buyoyo.com