Chinese filmmaker Chuan Lu has tackled a vast and ambitious subject in City of Life and Death. I knew very little about the siege on Nanjing (or Nanking, as Westerners have long referred to it) in 1937; I feel as if I understand it now, in all of its grim reality. A documentary might provide facts and figures, but Lu has used the dramatic form to personalize this story and fashion a powerful, multilayered film that shows what ordinary human beings are capable of in extreme circumstances.
Using widescreen, black & white imagery and a hand-held camera, he and his colleagues, including cinematographer Yu Cao and production designer Yi Hao, create a reality that seems both real and—
—immediate. The sheer size of the production is daunting, with entire cityscapes and many hundreds of extras bringing the past to vivid life.
But Lu’s most notable achievement is the way he weaves a variety of personal stories into the larger tapestry of the rape of Nanjing. The vignettes of inhumanity at every level are horrifying and, apparently, true, yet the film never feels exploitive or voyeuristic in its depiction of violence and depravity. I watched in fascination, as one would any tragedy captured on film.
Incidentally, the filmmaker courted great controversy in his native China by focusing on one of the Japanese soldiers, to show the tragedy from a point of view most Chinese have never considered before. By turning “the enemy” into an identifiable human being, he elevates the drama (and discourse) significantly. City of Life and Death is a thoroughly remarkable piece of work.