Successfully captures the horrors of war

City of Life and Death

on September 24, 2009 by Steve Ramos

The masterful qualities in the World War II epic City of Life and Death will introduce Chinese filmmaker Lu Chuan to larger U.S. audiences. A beautiful use of silence, stunning black and white photography and character-driven, humanistic storytelling within an explosive backdrop help this war epic stand out from the many others in the genre. City of Life and Death, a Kino Films release screened at the Toronto International Film Festival and is the story of the December 1937 invasion by the Imperial Japanese Army of Nanking, the wartime capital of the Republic of China. While only a handful of U.S. moviegoers watched Lu Chuan's previous film, Mountain Patrol, strong word of mouth, smart marketing that promotes City of Life and Death as a contemporary classic and the likelihood of it becoming China's submission for a Best Foreign Film Oscar nomination will help the film attract larger audiences when Kino releases it in May of 2011.

Actually, Lu Chuan fashions his sophomore film into two interlocking stories. The tense beginning of City of Life and Death focuses on the Dec. 9 invasion and the heroic efforts led by Chinese soldier Lu Jianxiong (Liu Ye) to try and stop the massive Japanese forces. After the invasion is complete four days later and the historic wall surrounding Nanking is destroyed, City of Life and Death changes tone and becomes a heartfelt human drama of survival. The film follows pretty schoolteacher Miss Jiang (Gao Yuanyuan), prostitute Xiao Jiang (Jiang Yiyan), German businessman John Rabe (John Paisley) and his Chinese assistant Mr. Tang (Fan Wei), all of whom reside with 300,000 other refugees in the International Safety Zone in the barricaded center of the city.

City of Life and Death may only be Lu Chuan's second film but he is clearly an early bloomer, someone who can look back on 100 years of cinema and be inspired by the best work of previous masters. City of Life and Death is epic in scope with massive battle scenes and yet Lu Chuan never loses sight of the human stories and the importance of the film's diverse characters. Editor Teng Yun keeps the story riveting throughout its 133 minutes. Composer Liu Tong complements the drama perfectly with a delicate score. Production designers Hao Yi and Lin Chaoxiang recreate period Nanking in all its horrific detail. Still, it's the screenplay by Lu Chuan that impresses most, particularly in the script’s ability to achieve a perfect balance of quiet moments and thundering battles in the streets of Nanking, the horrific sexual abuse of the Chinese women and the bravery of the surviving Nanking residents.

Liu Ye brings welcome charisma and heroism to the film as a brave Chinese soldier but the film's best performance belongs to Fan Wei as a Nanking businessman doing whatever it takes, even if it involves collaborating with the Japanese, to defend his family. His inevitable downfall is poignant and moving to watch.

Despite its scenes of death and abuse, City of Life and Death is still a hopeful film that celebrates the strengths of the Nanking people. It's also balanced, not so much for its international cast including both Chinese and Japanese actors, but for its portrayal of a Japanese soldier, Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi), who questions the actions of his superiors.

The story of Nanking has become more familiar to U.S. audiences thanks to the 2007 documentary Nanking by Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman. While recent Chinese war films have performed poorly with U.S. audiences— Devils on the Doorstep, about the Japanese occupation of a Northern Chinese village, for example— City of Life and Death is engaging enough to appeal to specialty moviegoers unfamiliar with Lu Chuan's first film. It's also good enough to promote Lu Chuan as a new master on the world cinema stage.

Distributor: Kino    
Cast: Liu Ye, Fan Wei and Hideo Nakaizumi
Director/Screenwriter: Lu Chuan
Producers: Sanping Han
Genre: War Drama; Mandarin-language, subtitled
Rating: TBD
Running time: 133 min.
Release Date: May 11 NY, June 17 LA     

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