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Thursday, February 2, 2012

City of Life and Death Film Review - Nanking Massacre

"City of Life and Death" is based on true events surrounding the Nanking Massacre. I had never heard of the Nanking Massacre and I feel guilty about my ignorance.  The massacre occurred during the Second Sino-Japanese War.  The film is set in 1937. The Japanese invade the then-capital of China, Nanking.  The Japanese army breaches the walls of the city and commits mass slaughter and raping of the population. The Chinese army at Nanking is doomed and its  population is left to suffer. 

City of Life and Death was released in 2009 and completely shot in black and white.  The black and white really supports the bleak and somber mood of the film. The movie is harrowing. It is full of death, despair and hopelessness.

I read a bit about the Nanking Massacre after watching the movie. The film is violent. There are many scenes of indiscrimanent killing and raping. The actual massacre, by the accounts I've read, was far more cruel and lethal than this film was willing to portray.

The violence in City of Life and Death is not gratiuitous. It could have been by all historical accounts far more vicious but it elects not to be.  I suppose there is a point in cinema where raping and violence needs to be controlled. Not by sensors per se but by good direction and writing.  Too much violence and the audience becomes numbed or perhaps walks out, which does no justice to the victims at Nanking.

The film is hard to watch at times but it is not unbearable.  I suspect this is because atrocities are told rather dispassionately.  That is not say the film is not filled with emotion, it provides emotion by the bucketful.  It is dispassionate as it is told from a  fairly impartial viewpoint.  This is surprising considering it is a Chinese-made film.  Sure, you sympathize with the Chinese. The horror they face is endless.  You want the violence to end but there are no Hollywood-manufactured hero's to liberate the oppressed. There is no master foil to the Japanese reign of terror. With subtle exceptions, the film never forces upon the audience a completely sympathetic character to rally behind or cry along side of.  No one rides in on a white horse.

There are  'true' heroes that will intrigue you.  John Rabe is one of them. Rabe was a German businessman who risks everything in efforts to protect the remaining Chinese by using what little Nazi influence he has over the Japanese.  I never heard of John Rabe but his story, which by the way does not dominate the film, reminds me so much of  Oskar Schindler's in "Schindler's  List"

The actors are tremendous (even if they are too often, too good looking :-).  They are  believable and well cast.

This film is big. It is one of the most powerful films I have seen in a long time.  It is the closest thing to a true anti war film I have seen since the movie "Come and See" , which I believe is the truest of anti-war films. My review of Come and See - (click here)  

More Great Movie Reviews

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Is Gulf War Film "Men Who Stare at Goats"  a goat?

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