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City of Life and Death

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City of Life and Death

Kino Lorber DVD and Blu-Ray

The Japanese never developed the kind of vertically integrated inhumanity that the Nazis did during the Holocaust, but the Imperial Army does carry at least one mid-20th-century mass atrocity on its ledger: the Rape of Nanking during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Only in the past decade or so have fictional films based on the events of late 1937/early 1938 begun to emerge. Chinese writer/director Lu Chuan’s City of Life and Death sets a high standard for any that come after it.

As Lu’s cameras depict (in austere black and white), the Japanese Army attacked, overran, and occupied what was then China’s capital. The soldiers went on to treat the city like the bloodthirsty conquerors of old stories, looting, raping thousands of women, and killing perhaps as many as 300,000 civilians and prisoners of war. Lu’s film bears the requisite epic scope—around a dozen central characters, hundreds of extras, block after block of urban rubble, a story that spans the entire occupation viewed from both sides—yet he manages to create a human scale for this monumental tragedy. Kind-faced Mr. Tang (Fan Wei) serves as secretary for John Rabe (John Paisley), a Nazi expat who uses his status as a nominal ally of Japan to create a “safe zone” to shield a few thousand Chinese from gang rape and mass graves. Yet even Rabe’s protection can’t prevent a member of Tang’s family from being casually killed by a Japanese soldier (as horrific a scene as you’ll see onscreen this year), or stop his sister-in-law (Yao Di) from being pressed into service as a “comfort woman.” Japanese commander Ida (Ryu Kohata) even seems a little shocked by his own ruthlessness, but Lu tells much of the story through the perspective of Sgt. Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi), who is far more than a little taken aback by the actions of his comrades, and his own.

Kadokawa humanizes the Imperial Army, but no one who sits through City of Life and Death will ever forget its depictions of Japanese-inflicted villainies: acres of fresh corpses, say, or Chinese women chopping off their hair and smudging their faces with dirt in hopes of avoiding violation. The unflinching grimness and the black-and-white cinematography call to mind Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, and Lu’s film can keep its head up in that company, though Spielberg was able to find some uplift in his Holocaust account. Lu has more trouble with that.

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