"Lu Chuan's City of Life and Death has the title and the feel of a monument," writes J Hoberman in the Voice. "This widescreen, austerely monochromatic, two-hour-plus collective drama — depicting the worst indignity inflicted by foreigners on modern China, as well as the most terrible atrocity in the run-up to World War II — might have been hewed from rock and colored by soot."
Further in, he notes that the film "frequently, if superficially, adopts a Japanese point of view, something that evidently infuriated a sizable chunk of the Chinese audience. (The movie would have been pulled from theaters after one week were it not for the protection of the Communist Party's chief propagandist; although a popular hit, it received no official awards.) On the festival circuit since 2009, the film has been well-received by foreign critics, recognizing a historical epic in the Griffith-Lean-Spielberg tradition."
This reception bugs Michael Joshua Rowin, writing for the L: "Lu's is a post-Saving Private Ryan directorial approach to war: open with battle and massacre scenes so up-close-and-personal that the verisimilitude of mayhem overshadows any weaknesses in the human drama."
In Slant, Bill Weber concedes that City "occasionally descends into movieland banality, as when a prisoner about to suffer punishment worse than death evenly pleads 'Shoot me' to Kadokawa, or in the closing image of a child blowing a pussy willow into the wind. But from his opening scrum of Chinese would-be deserters barreling in terror into a wall of loyal troops, to firefights in smoky rubble and the sickening creak of bedsprings in criminal 'comfort' brothels, Lu's picture of cumulative inhumanity has unflinching, nightmarish strength."
"Mr Lu's last film was Mountain Patrol: Kekexili, a surprisingly tense fictionalization of the attempts to stem the illegal trade in the Tibetan antelope, or chiru, which has been driven to near extinction because of consumer lust for its wool (shahtoosh). He is an extraordinary visual artist and here, working in wide screen and shooting in black and white, he singles out specific images — dead and naked prostitutes stacked in a cart like wood, a sole dead woman tossed in a ditch — that encapsulate a multitude of horrors. Watching this film, you are reminded of how much needless explaining characters do in American cinema."
For Karina Longworth, writing for indieWIRE, City "has the feel of a lost post-War foreign classic, a masterwork implicating the viewer in the horrors of bearing witness." More from Joe Bendel, Richard Brody (New Yorker), Dustin Chang (Twitch), Joshua Rothkopf (Time Out New York, 3/5) and James van Maanen. Earlier: Daniel Kasman from Toronto in 2009. Damon Smith interviews Lu for Filmmaker. City of Life and Death is now at New York's Film Forum through May 24.
FILM COMMENT, MAY/JUNE 2011
"In most arts, academic study isn't considered the enemy of journalistic criticism. A newspaper's music or architecture critic likely studied the discipline in college and applies that training to reviewing current work. When it comes to cinema, though, the relations are cool, even adversarial." David Bordwell looks into how that happened.
Also in the new issue of Film Comment, Kent Jones interviews Woody Allen and reviews his new film, Midnight in Paris (see the roundup). Plus, Tom Mes on Takashi Miike's 13 Assassins, Chris Chang on Daniel Cockburn's You Are Here, Nathan Lee on Pierre Thoretton's L'Amour fou, Stuart Klawans on Andrew Rossi's Page One: Inside the New York Times, Laura Kern on Srdjan Spasojevic's A Serbian Film, Nicolas Rapold on Kôji Wakamatsu's United Red Army, Andrew Sarris on Daniel and Diego Vega's Octubre and Jesse P Finnegan's new column: "Though interactivity and the occasional communally constituted cyber-corpus have never been strangers to Site Specifics, The Johnny Cash Project encapsulates this tendency in Web-based filmmaking with an elegance that seems to inaugurate a bona fide microgenre."
Rooftop Films' 15th Annual Summer Series launches this weekend and, in the Wall Street Journal, Steve Dollar notes that it's become "one of the most popular seasonal pastimes for cinema-minded New Yorkers. And this year, thanks to an evolving curatorial and fund-raising initiative, it is also a participant in the creation of some of the films on display, rather than a mere screener of them."
Sunday is Brian Eno's birthday — he'll turn 63. Celebrating a few days early, San Francisco's Roxie and Noise Pop present a screening tonight of Brian Eno 1971 - 1977: The Man Who Fell To Earth, "preceded by a video mix of performance clips and birthday surprises! Talk about Roxie Music!"
IN OTHER NEWS
Two new essays have been added to Reverse Shot 29: Michael Koresky on Tamara Jenkins's The Savages (2007) and Mark Rydell's On Golden Pond (1981) and Adam Nayman on Kelly Reichardt's Old Joy (2006) and Louis Malle's My Dinner with André (1981).
"Dolores Fuller, the onetime actress-girlfriend of cross-dressing schlock movie director Ed Wood who co-starred with Wood in his low-budget 1950s cult classic Glen or Glenda?, has died," reports Dennis McLellan in the Los Angeles Times. "She was 88." Did you know that her "show business career included writing the lyrics to a dozen Elvis Presley movie songs"?
"David Stone, a producer, distributor and exhibitor best known as the head of Cinegate Film Distribution and the Gate Cinema in west London, has died at the age of 78 after a short illness," reports Screen's Mike Goodridge. "Stone, with his wife Barbara, was legendary for introducing avant-garde directors like Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Derek Jarman to UK audiences as well as classic world cinema titles like Mephisto and Kagemusha."
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