By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
Chinese director Chuan Lu graduated from the prestigious Beijing Film Academy and wrote his dissertation on Francis Ford Coppola, director of the “Godfather” saga. He summons all of his knowledge for his devastating third dramatic feature, “City of Life and Death,” a study of the Nanking Massacre.
The still-shocking Nanking Massacre took place in 1937 and 1938. For six weeks, Japanese soldiers killed and raped Chinese citizens after the fall of Nanking (then the Chinese capital) to the Japanese in the Second Sino-Japanese War.
The massacre left hundreds of thousands of people dead. It is still the source of tension in Chinese-Japanese relations, due in large part to Japan’s varying reactions to it over time. Japanese government officials denied the existence of the massacre as recently as 1990. A popular documentary film, “Nanking,” released in 2007, inspired an answer film from right-wing Japanese nationalist Satoru Mizushima, denying that the massacre ever took place.
“City of Life and Death” includes some actual historic figures, but also some invented characters. It incorporates male, female, Japanese, Chinese, and even a few Caucasian perspectives.
Under the circumstances, director Lu’s decision to make a central character out of a Japanese soldier, Kadokawa (played by Hideo Nakaizumi), is a controversial one. When the film opened in China, Lu received online death threats to both himself and his family.
However, Kadakowa serves as a point of conscience for the film. He reminds us of the sensible, if painful, point of view that some Japanese soldiers were repelled by the massacre, even if they shamefully took no action to stop it.
Also, Nakaizumi makes us believe in Kadokawa, even if the solider isn’t drawn directly from real life. Time after time, he tries to follow orders, but repeated close-ups of his face show his eyes slowly widening in horror, and his spirit shredding. He’ll pay a heavy price for his duty to Japan.
Two whites at Nanking who did a great deal to save Chinese lives were American Minnie Vautrin (Beverly Peckous) and, oddly enough, German Nazi official John Rabe (John Paisley). They both appear in the film, but only sporadically. In a Chinese-language film, Chinese characters understandably dominate.
A central Chinese character, also created for the film, is Mr. Tang (Wei Fan), assistant to John Rabe. As the film begins, Tang feels confident that his connections to Germany, the Axis partner to Japan, will protect him and his family.
To his slowly growing disbelief, he comes to realize that the Japanese will do anything they care to. Wei Fan, mostly known as a comic actor in China, balances wit and good humor with a powerful grasp of encroaching darkness.
Cinematographer Yu Cao also plays an essential role. The film is shot in black-and-white Cinemascope, allowing for stark contrasts and sweeping vistas of crumbling, blown-apart city blocks.
Despite its rocky reception in China, the film took home several prominent awards across the globe, including recognition for the director and the cinematographer at the Asian Film Awards. Hopefully, these awards will assist the film to help raise global awareness, of this festering atrocity in history. ♦
“City of Life and Death” opens Friday, July 8, for one week at Seattle’s Varsity Theatre, 4329 University Way N.E. in Seattle’s University District. Call 206-781-5755 for prices and showtimes.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.