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Movie Review

City of Life and Death

A gasp for humanity in ‘City of Life and Death’

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By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / June 3, 2011

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It’s fair to witness all the slaughter, defenestration, and rape in “City of Life and Death,’’ and think, “What life?’’ But by that point, you’ll know that it’s all in the filmmaking. The movie begins right after Japan sacked Nanking, in December 1937, during the Second Sino-Japanese War and spent six weeks choking it to death. The director Lu Chuan shot the film in light, hazy black-and-white, using lots of hand-held camerawork, which lends the requisite immediacy. We’re down in the trenches with the Chinese soldiers and underfoot as they’re trampled during a march into combat. We barge in along with a Chinese man and an American aid worker as a gang of Japanese soldiers sexually assaults a Chinese girl.

The Japanese so thoroughly invade Nanking that it’s the Chinese who appear to be visiting. It’s also fair to wonder, “What city?’’ The former Chinese capital is a ruin — and not a grand one, either. It’s an immense rubblescape, full of looted buildings and tessellated corpses. Lu has directed only a couple of movies — his previous one, “Mountain Patrol’’ from 2004, is only a bit less grueling than this one — and, as “City of Life and Death’’ barrels forward from one horror to the next, the youthfulness and suspense in Lu’s style leave little room to think. This is the sort of film that sustains the dual illusion of having made itself while inspiring astonishment at exactly how it was made. Lu does more with the first 50 minutes than some directors accomplish in 10 movies.

One extended, elaborately staged gun battle commences with the awakening of a sleeping tank and ends with the massacre of rounded-up, penned-in Chinese fighters. In between, there’s time to contemplate whether the movie wants to valorize the Chinese troops (it does) while demonizing the Japanese (not quite). Japan’s Imperial Army soldiers are introduced as mostly buffoons who seem incapable of grasping the scale of destruction. A group of Japanese mocks a Nazi businessman named Rabe (John Paisley) and Tan, his Chinese assistant (Fan Wei, who’s excellent). But not much later, the soldiers creep through a square and find a mass of Chinese peasants anticipating capture. The camera pulls back and reveals a sea of peasants. The mix of confusion, sadness, and awe that comes over the men’s faces feels just right. That’s what we feel. The humanity of this discovery threatens to drown them. They need to compose and reassert themselves. Every gunshot draws screams from the women. The screams — and groans and wails — echo throughout the arcade. One soldier shoots at a closed door. The dead weight of the hidden women he’s killed forces the door open, and the bodies pile onto the floor. The wailing at that point is unbearable.

The film’s next act shifts to the internationally operated Chinese refugee camps, which Rabe struggles to keep open and murder-free but which the Japanese proceed to liquidate, shooting hospitalized soldiers who don’t first shoot themselves, throwing a child from a window. The difficulty of enumerating the atrocities doesn’t compare with the shock of witnessing them. This middle section is largely occupied with the sexual enslavement of the women to the Japanese — how to negotiate it, how to prevent it, whether to avenge it, how to escape it. Suddenly and convincingly, a grisly war movie becomes flinty melodrama centered on strength and sacrifice and suffering. There is also the matter of hair. To ward off Japanese attention, the Chinese women give themselves men’s haircuts. Some resist. It doesn’t appear to work, anyway, but the movie might also be letting us know that a style is born of tragic necessity. In this film, it feels like rape by a different name.

Iris Chang’s “Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II’’ is a well-regarded account of those six weeks, gathered from Chinese survivors and Japanese soldiers. Lu’s movie covers similar terrain. It, too, feels witnessed but without ever seeming detached. The movie’s only mistake is with the corny music. At some point, though, Lu must realize that all the symphonic crying is a disaster. They’re just tears that make everything wet.

But his movie bears the complex weight of history and captures the general principle of national character. Here the Japanese senses of honor and of shame are particularly entangled. Later in the film, Lu mounts an Imperial Army parade through the Nanking ruins. It’s something to see. The soldiers step-dance in formation, while two men beat either side of a giant drum, creating a rhythm that under wildly different circumstances might be a Timbaland beat for Björk. You get an alluring sense of the army’s pageantry. You also feel its danger. The men are moving like snakes in the dust.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

CITY OF LIFE AND DEATH

Written and directed by: Lu Chuan

Starring: Fan Wei, Liu Ye, Gao Yuanyuan, John Paisley, and Hideo Nakaizumi

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 135 minutes

In Mandarin and Japanese, with English subtitles

Unrated (a variety of war-related slaughter and brutal sexual assault)

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