Tuesday, October 1, 2013

City of Life and Death (2009)

During the Second Sino-Japanese War fought between 1937 and 1945, the Japanese Imperial Army captured the city of Nanking (also known as Nanjing), the former capital of the Republic of China, towards the end of 1937. Widespread destruction and pillage followed. Thousands of Chinese captives, including civilians and soldiers were subjected to mass killing and torture, while their women and children were mercilessly raped and brutalized! All this happened over a period of a whole six weeks, as a result of the Imperial Army's sweeping victory over the Chinese army that made monsters out of men! Just because China lost the war, Japan thought they could have their way with the loot of the war, humans included! The incident later came to be known as the "Nanking Massacre" or the "Rape of Nanking".

Chinese director Lu Chuan, in his third feature film, tries to chronicle a part of this infamous massacre that is a near unfathomable act of meaningless killings and rape that can easily rival the Holocaust! And he does it with such audacity and ingenuity, in a manner akin to an observer, that it does not come across as a propaganda film, but still manages to leave the viewer emotionally hit to a great degree. The opening scenes drive home the point that what you would witness in the next couple of hours wouldn't be pleasing in the least. The sharp monochrome shots of a destroyed city speak volumes; the sad, dirge-like score evokes a sense of all round devastation, death and loss. The Japanese Imperial army, in a harrowing battle, defeat the Chinese army and capture Nanking. A battle so intense in its presentation, the images and the sound design so well formed, it almost seems like those rifles shoot us, rather than those soldiers who succumb to a bullet coming out of nowhere!

These initial 30-40 minutes display the attack and counterattack in all its chaotic glory and the viewer is at once confounded about what is going on! Imagine then, how confused the soldier must be on the battlefield with all that ammo whizzing past, aiming to take him down any second! Nevertheless, it reaches its sad end, after bringing back memories of the chilling Normandy attack sequence in Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" (1998). What follows is the chronicling of the aftermath, that brought out the worst in the Japanese Imperial Army. It is these parts that are the most difficult to watch, but Lu Chuan is relentless in his approach. There is not a moment's respite! He doesn't sugarcoat anything and documents the events as they happened. There is minimal dialog, only when required. It is mostly about images, not pleasant ones, of course. Lu Chuan literally takes the viewer in the middle of the massacre, making him/her a mute spectator as atrocity after atrocity is unleashed on the captives!

He just shoves our faces through a periscope which points back in time to that era of horror and makes us watch what we wish to look away from, despite being in our comfortable shelter and vantage point! We watch, as the Japanese soldiers go on a mass killing spree. They execute Chinese soldiers and civilians and hang their severed heads all around! They don't spare even the refugee camps, and just break in and pick women to rape. Children aren't spared either! Their victory makes them feel all-powerful. A propaganda film? Fictionalization? Not at all! Just a depiction of the truth; a bitter one, of course! As much as it would beggar the imagination that something like that could ever happen, it indeed has. And history is witness.

Lu Chuan also uses a documentary approach to his storytelling and refrains from creating a singular protagonist or protagonists that stand out. Any character development is, in fact, non-existent. Chuan tactfully uses this approach and yet makes the film mighty effective, for despite not getting to really know any of the characters closely, we can't help but feel their pain! We are made to empathize with the entire humanity and not some specific individuals. There is no single entity or hero to root for!

As a matter of fact, we find ourselves rooting for the entire Chinese population that pile up into dead bodies in scores. We keep hoping  for a miracle but no such thing ever happens. While we never get very well acquainted with them, it is difficult to shake the image of Mrs. Tang's (Qin Lan) sorrowful face from our memory, as tears well up when Mr. Tang (Fan Wei) decides to stay back! At the same time one can't help but feel that somewhere beneath the iron exterior of Japanese soldier Kadokawa (Nakaizumi Hideo) there beats a heart of gold. This is where Chuan scores the most, and while there is a mention of a documentary approach, rest assured, the film builds on aesthetics of a polished and accomplished work of cinema, the stark black and white reminiscent of "Schindler's List" (1993) and not a newsreel footage!

"City of Life and Death" is virtually plotless and aptly so. There is no beginning, nor a definite end to the film. There is just this two-hour chronicling of a painful six-week period in the life of Chinese civilians. So where is the room for a plot? Despite this, and although not an easy watch at all, the carnage and the savagery needed to be showcased to remind us of this violent chapter in history. In fact, we are shown quite an abridged version of what happened. Several other heinous, unspeakable acts committed, especially on children, are documented in history but not depicted in the film. Chuan perhaps decided to spare us a lifetime of misery by doing that!

But is there any hope for humanity in the midst of a war-stricken environment where power hungry nations continue to play with their guns like they were toys? Chuan is one of the hopefuls who, after subjecting us to something so utterly bleak, so as to deprive us of sleep, yet accurately portraying war in all its senselessness, treats us to an ending that is soul-crushing and bittersweet. It doesn't lead to a complete reassurance anyway, for what's done is done. There is no turning back time, but there are lessons to be learnt. The medium of cinema is one of the most powerful and most accessible. And it is films like "City of Life and Death" that teach us these lessons in their own resonating and impactful way so as to remain etched in memory forever. It is good to forget a dark past, but at the same time it is important not to forget the mistakes made, with the hope of preventing events of cataclysmic proportions such as these.

Score: 10/10

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