Monday, December 12, 2011

City of Life and Death (Lu Chuan, 2011)

Few words are exchanged during the first 45 minutes of Lu Chuan's City of Life and Death, an account of the infamous atrocities that occurred with the fall of Nanking to the Japanese in 1937. Lu confines the dialogue to barked orders, frantic cries and warrior yells from the vanquishing and vanquished. Mixing the black-and-white moral gulf of Schindler's List with the shaky-cam "realism" of Saving Private Ryan, the director draws out the Japanese entry into the city in such a way to create a mood of unending chaos and carnage while also emphasizing a suddenness to the breakthrough, of the KMT soldiers and civilians within the walls having anticipated the city's fall but not on such an overwhelming scale. Fortifications that repelled who knows how many enemies for centuries are reduced to rubble in seconds by Japanese tanks, and a mass panic by the leaderless KMT enlisted only leads them to the waiting arms of the surrounding invaders. Those who stand and fight only prolong the inevitable, making further pandemonium as the bodies keep falling.

City of Life and Death is not a film about the few who survived. The best comfort anyone can hope for is a quick, painless, dignified death rather than one by torture or rape, where mercy killings are the gentlest show of grace. Emphasizing the sheer vastness of the killing, the most prominent KMT fighter of the first act dies by the end of the siege, his corpse discovered by a comrade whose brief shock soon melts to numbness. And when the Japanese take total control of the city and its inhabitants, the terror only becomes more random, more incalculable. Everyone is vulnerable, and Lu introduces his primary cast of characters solely through their actions, each dealing with the takeover in his or her own way. To define them with dialogue and exposition would make them stand still to long, making them too vulnerable for any passing Japanese.

Lu's film displays an immaculate construction despite the occasion incoherence of the rapid editing and insert shots that disorient more than clarify. Cao Yu's crisp black-and-white photography captures every minute travesty in stark detail. Scattered shots—of a Japanese soldier almost playfully throwing a child out of a window to kill it, of a woman too proud to cut her hair later limping back to the rest of the women having been violated—stick in the mind with unwelcome firmness, the sharpness of the image forcing the viewer to look upon such sights with no escape.

Yet the same perfection of design also brings up the usual quibbles over atrocity films. Any film about a tremendous historical horror inevitably brings up questions as to its handling of that event and whether it captures the full breadth of the human failing or just wallows in misery. The debate over Schindler's List may last forever, and I myself grapple with it with each viewing, even if I always come out in support of it. City of Life and Death does not turn away from the repulsive actions of the Japanese, for it cannot; to do otherwise would be to soften the truth. Yet the director frames the endless cycle of murder and rape with such formalist designs that the beauty of the image sometimes outweighs the content of those images. Consider the scene of Mr. Rabe, the old Nazi emissary left impotent and devastated by the cruelty around him, quiveringly announcing to assembled women that 100 of them will have to "volunteer" to become comfort women. A master shot of the gathered people stresses the striking elements of the shot's framing more than the situation, and the close-ups of resigned hands slowly lifting into the air only further compositional technique over moral impact. What should be a profoundly disturbing scene instead becomes a lyrically pretty one, its tragedy artfully arranged at the expense of the women being sacrificed for the sake of the others.

Likewise, the attempts to humanize the Japanese feel like perfunctory efforts that only halfheartedly make the case for any depth of feeling in the enemy at all. The film's most visible Japanese soldier, Kadokawa, struggles with the bloodletting and sodomizing all around him, but he displays a clear disdain for such from the start. Instead of presenting him as a character grappling with a budding conscience, he is miserable throughout, and the subplot of his misguided love for a Japanese prostitute says nothing about the character not already obvious and makes for the most awkward parts of the film.

Far more complex is the one scene in the film where a Chinese civilian, heretofore so obsessed with getting himself and his family to safety, develops a sudden calm and selflessness, his almost friendly acceptance of his now-doomed fate such that the previously taunting officer who orders his death averts his eyes from the execution in shame and guilt. It is that ability to continue to commit unspeakable acts while knowing, deep down, of their unforgivable sins that makes the actions of the Japanese, or the Nazis, or the Soviets, or the Americans or any other power in any war so insolubly timeless.

Nevertheless, Lu's film is so stunning at times that I was drawn despite my routine objections to the same elements that captivated me. Given how poorly served the Holocaust typically is by cinematization, perhaps it's a blessing that relatively fewer films about the Rape of Nanking exist. But films like City of Life and Death hinder as much as they help, and the sudden relief of the ending does not balance out what came before or even slightly dampen the nauseated effect of such enormous ruination. Lu's undeniable skill with a camera make me eager to check out his earlier, smaller features, but City of Life and Death shows that his ability to frame an epic far outstrips his capacity to make it mean something.

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