Shells fly, walls crumble and bodies fall in the first 25 minutes of “City of Life and Death,” Lu Chuan’s monumental account of the Japanese occupation of Nanjing in 1937. Shot in stately chiaroscuro, the sequence recalls the scope of Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica”: Chaos reigns as a once-proud national capital falls victim to the vagaries of war. Whirling in and out of ruined buildings, Lu’s wide-angle compositions capture Nanjing in its final hours of resistance with uncompromising veracity.
What ensues is a film that confronts the darkest depths of the human condition. After quelling the final regiments of Chinese freedom fighters, the Japanese soldiers engage in a six-week period of wanton debauchery that would take hundreds of thousands of lives. Civilians are ordered to dig their own graves, women are enlisted into makeshift brothels and pleas for peace fall on deaf ears. It’s a descent into madness painstakingly orchestrated by writer-director Lu, whose previous two films — 2002’s darkly comedic “The Missing Gun,” 2004’s sparse, ruminative “Kekexili: Mountain Patrol” — have established him as one of China’s most versatile contemporary auteurs.
We observe the monstrosities through a wealth of colorful if muted characters, among them brooding fighter Lu Jianxiong (Liu Ye), headstrong schoolteacher Jiang Shuyun (Gao Yuanyuan) and pensive Japanese soldier Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi). Their individual anecdotes coalesce with those of historical figures: John Rabe, a German businessman; and Minnie Vautrin, an American missionary. In the wake of the Japanese occupation, each character’s motives and means of survival are ostensibly different, but Lu frames them within one overarching tapestry of humanity regardless of background or ethnicity. As a result, the film never feels disjointed as it shifts from one individual’s point of view to another.
That the controversy surrounding “City of Life and Death” hindered its domestic release by over two years and elicited death threats toward its director is troubling yet hardly surprising. The events of Nanjing remain deeply embedded within the sensitive realm of East Asian sociopolitical culture today, and for Lu to include a Japanese soldier who hardly fits the bill of a traditional antagonist would understandably raise a wave of protest sentiment among mainland Chinese audiences. Yet it is precisely Kadokawa’s ambivalence — his vacillation between morality and the spoils of war — that crystallizes the film’s psychological and ideological core. Through his eyes, a city ravaged by brutality transforms into a stronghold of national resilience.
Over 70 years later, the horror of Nanjing remains indelible. The film’s kaleidoscopic approach to history presents a bold, maddening irony: one man’s struggle to comprehend man’s inhumanity against himself. It’s a measure of Lu Chuan’s ability to craft indelible images that “City of Life and Death” unfolds as nothing less than a beautiful provocation, an anthropological document of magisterial proportions.
David Liu is the arts & entertainment editor.