World War 2 and Holocaust films are these days so prevalent that controversy carries more weight as habitual kneejerk reaction than a serious complaint about representation of the past (see, for instance, the many remarkably daft readings of Inglourious Basterds). But tread fresh territory and prepare to be repulsed: Lu Chuan’s City of Life and Death, intently focused on the 1937 Rape of Nanking by the invading Japanese army, turns its camera to atrocity very rarely visited by the camera, and it is shocking the blow dealt afresh to history by a need to visualize.
Why it falls to Lu, who last directed the excellent Tibetan western Kekexili: Mountain Patrol, to represent such horror is an unexpected mystery in its own right, but ultimately the great dismay of the film is its paramount responsibility, so common of the 20th century, of overwriting history with cinema. The pointless atrocity checklist of City of Life and Death’s mid-film slog of showing the various kinds of horror that occurred in the occupied city, this kind of massacre and that kind of rape—all for seemingly no reason but to represent, to imagine and then bring to life and preserve it, the unrepresented—may eventually gain ground over history in the way this event is thought about. One need to look no further back than Schindler’s List , or for that matter Saving Private Ryan, to see how significantly certain films’s powerful desire to bring death to life has impacted the way we see, think about, and subsequently represent such horrors.
To further speed up this sinking ship of offense, the story’s focus on the Japanese is, of course, on the enlisted men and principally on one man’s growing moral conflict, with nary an appearance of an officer of responsibility. Crimes are therefore rendered abstract, unmotivated and just a natural occurrence in this cultural history—an envisioning purporting to understand nothing. On the Chinese side, tragically, the reverse situation is portrayed. Upper-middle class characters are the ones who face the difficulties of administration, leading, and collaboration, leaving the apparently unconflicted or banal despair and suffering of the bulk of Nanking’s population to bland montages of faces and random violence. These are the easy routes to take, not for exploration, as there is none, but for sentimental melodrama.
Yet the film isn’t as dismissible as it may sound. When City of Life and Death moves away from the plentiful steadicam close-ups of conflicted/avid Japanese faces or those of the indignant/suffering Chinese, Lu’s complex compositions, with their graphic, multi-vectored use of space and movement in the frame and staging, suggests a directorial talent beyond that void of taste that exists in the bulging center of this film and its project. The movie’s opening act, a Saving Private Ryan-style battle, pursues the interesting angle that the Japanese and Chinese military forces are equal in respect, morality, and courage as fighting units. To progress from this idea to when one side begins massacring the other is an idea that could have saved some of the blood that follows.
Strangely enough, just as the film’s intelligence precedes the massacre, once the “rape” is over, Lu’s ideas, conceptual and cinematic, seem to return again. The movie ends on a wondrous, wise note, that of a Japanese victory parade replete with rhythmic drumming (reminiscent of the score for Full Metal Jacket) and dancing by the men we have just spend two hours watching murder and rape. The Japanese need to turn their bloody experiences in the city into a rousing cultural expression, just like, in a way, Lu is doing his own form of cultural translation, one with seventy years’ hindsight. The difference is that City of Life and Death will live on, helping define and redefine the understanding of the Rape of Nanking, whereas the Japanese’s dance, triumphant in the moment, dies with the memory of its participants.