'City of Life and Death': Drama approaches Nanking massacre from both sides
A movie review of Lu Chuan's "City of Life and Death," a gripping dramatization about the 1937-1938 massacre at Nanking.
Special to The Seattle Times
'City of Life and Death,' with Hideo Nakaizumi, Yuko Miyamoto. Written and directed by Lu Chuan. 132 minutes. Rated R for wartime violence and atrocities, including sexual assault, and for some sexuality and brief nudity. In Chinese and Japanese, with English subtitles. Metro.
Lu Chuan — the gifted Chinese creator of "Mountain Patrol: Kekexili" — wrote and directed "City of Life and Death," a gripping 2009 dramatization of the 1937-1938 massacre at Nanking, where more than 300,000 people were raped and/or slaughtered.
If you think you've seen this movie before, you may be remembering "Nanking," a devastating 2007 film that took a documentary-style approach. Or you may be thinking of the late Iris Chang's 1997 book, "The Rape of Nanking," which introduced many Westerners to this ghastly narrative.
If you just don't want to be reminded of it, that's understandable. In almost any form, the story of the Nanking atrocities can leave you profoundly shaken. But Lu Chuan's version may be the most compassionate and emotionally satisfying treatment to date.
His black-and-white widescreen film sometimes seems designed as a response to Chang's critics, who accused her of suggesting that Japanese warriors' codes led inevitably to an Asian holocaust in Nanking — which was the capital of China when the walled city was attacked.
"City of Life and Death" focuses on the reactions of both the Chinese victims and the Japanese invaders. A Chinese family tries to survive in a "safety zone." A naive, horrified Japanese soldier (Hideo Nakaizumi) witnesses mass murder shortly after falling for a beautiful prostitute (Yuko Miyamoto).
This may sound like a frivolous approach to the subject, and there are times when this heart-of-gold hooker and her green soldier seem awfully familiar. But the characters are based on historical figures, and the script skillfully draws them together in a way that's quite affecting.
The confrontations between the citizens and the soldiers are handled with a scary newsreel immediacy, especially in the chaotic early scenes. The wrenching final episodes, which are set up like a series of sadistic rituals, are reminiscent of "Sophie's Choice."
John Hartl: firstname.lastname@example.org
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