City of Life and Death

July 30, 2010

Made “in memory” of the some 300,000 victims of the 1937 Nanjing Massacre (also known as the Rape of Nanking), City of Life and Death (2009) is important and difficult viewing.

Behind the opening credits are pieces of history; postcards written in English from inside Nanking by John Rabe (a member of the Nazi party who tried to protect many Chinese refugees during Japanese occupation through the establishment of the “Nanking Safety Zone”.) The handwritten words on the postcards reflect desperation but not hopelessness. Sadly, the images and events that follow unravel so as to leave no room for hope; merciless and relentless in their revealing of many truly horrific crimes against humanity. Like a tide pulling out from the shore, waves of Chinese civilians are massacred; shot, beheaded as a form of trophy-ism, buried alive. In addition to the massacres, thousands of women were repeatedly raped by Japanese soldiers. Even hope itself is symbolically taken from the Chinese citizens of Nanjing when Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi) – the most likely soldier to have a moral and ethical conscience – takes away Mrs Tang’s rosary beads.

Visually the film is incredibly convincing, the attention to detail and the texture of the images deeply affecting. It is occasionally let down by intermittent overly melodramatic exchanges which unfortunately can’t help but recall that overwrought final scene in Schindler’s List (1993).Considering at its heart the notion that, “Life is more difficult than Death” and contemplating the finiteness of the “death drive”: “Everyone dies in the End”, City of Life and Death shows how a war zone necessarily becomes a liminal space – suspended between life and death – leaving only victims in its wake. Brilliant filmmaking and essential viewing.

City of Life and Death screened as part of this year’s MIFF.

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