The Siege Of Nanking, the Chinese capital, by the Imperial Japanese Army commenced on December 9, 1937 and ended six weeks later, with as many as 300,000 killed. (The estimated casualties are still under dispute, and the event remains a raw nerve between the two countries.) Often referred to as “The Rape Of Nanking,” due to reports that up to 80,000 women were raped by soldiers, the scope of the tragedy is so immense that depicting it onscreen seems artistically and politically daunting, to say the least. Yet Lu Chuan’s powerful epic City Of Life And Death threads the needle beautifully, capturing the breadth of the slaughter and barbarism without dehumanizing either side. It has its war-movie clichés—the relationship between a virginal Japanese solider and a gold-hearted sex worker is particularly egregious—but with a tragedy of this size, that sense of perspective isn’t easily achieved.
For the first 45 minutes, it seems like Lu intends on documenting all 300,000 victims; had he not made the crucial decision to shoot in black and white, City Of Life And Death would be unbearable. Lu shows the clashing of armies, as the Japanese smash through barrier walls and overwhelm the city, but he also doesn’t flinch from the systemic killing of noncombatants, whether the army is opening fire on civilians, or, in one horrific sequence, burying them alive. Once the city has been seized, the film settles on a handful of characters: the German industrialist John Rabe (John Paisley), who uses his factory grounds as a safety zone to shelter refugees; Rabe’s secretary (Fan Wei), who relies on his boss’ courage and connections to protect his family; a charismatic Chinese general (Liu Ye); a young Japanese officer (Hideo Nakaizumi) who retreats from his sadistic platoon leader (Ryu Kohata) into the arms of a “comfort woman”; and several others.
Measured against last year’s feeble German biopic John Rabe, the enormity of Lu’s achievement is striking, both in the grandness of the film’s staging and in its engagement with the chaos of war. While it never slips into incoherence, City Of Life And Death often shifts to the ground-level vantage of civilians who don’t know what’s going to happen to them next, or from where or whom. The responsibility of handling such an important and politically sensitive event might cause a lesser filmmaker to play it safe, and to some extent, the multiple storylines do seem imported from war movies past. But the film never feels entirely staid: Lu wriggles out of convention where he can, especially in the first half, and engages with history as an artist, not a hagiographer.