On City of Life and Death

SIFF night No. 2 for me, this time at the Everett Center for the Performing Arts, which was quite a nice venue. City of Life and Death is a Chinese film about the fall of Nanking to the Japanese Imperial Army in 1937, and the massacre that followed, known as the “Rape of Nanking”. This is no hyperbole, as tens of thousand of Chinese women were raped by Japanese soldiers, and perhaps 300,000 civilians were killed.

As brutal as this movie is, it perhaps even soft-pedals the rape. In a scene central to the film, Japanese military officers demand that 100 women volunteer as “comfort women”; out of a mass of civilians huddled in a church or a temple, individual hands begin rising up, one by one. Women step forward, and off they heroically go. This certainly doesn’t look good, but I imagine the reality for most of the 80,000 women or however many it was was a great deal worse. Victimization on this massive a scale doesn’t take place with a such cloyingly sentimental soundtrack either. Or maybe it does: another scene has the Japanese soldiers gathered around a piano singing happy songs from the homeland. Sick. Is it all played with feeling like this? No. Scenes of dead women tossed naked onto a cart to be taken out of the comfort camp are horrifying, for us in the audience and for a few soldiers in the scene, who naturally avert their eyes. Custodia oculorum, unfortunately sine custodia peniculorum.

One real strength of the film is the revelation of individual characters through actions and their own words. There is very little “signposting” here. Is John Rabe really a good Nazi? Is his Chinese assistant Mr. Tang an honorable man? The viewer is tasked with deciding this for him or her self. The beginning of the movie, which covers the final defeat of the last Chinese soldiers, is very well done. The bombed-out urban landscape is a nightmare, and the scenes are filmed with a kind of strobe light effect that gives these fast moving sequences a heightened sense of reality that might approximate the experience of shooting it out against an overwhelming invasion amidst ruins and fire.

While I’m not sure they were intended as anything more than an attempt to capture the Japanese obsession with film, several references to film worked well as a way of implicating the viewer in a voyeurism of violence. In one scene, a Japanese soldier is shown filming the destruction with a small, hand-held camera; in another, a group poses in front of smoking bubble for a photographer – obscene mementos for soldier tourists living out the cliché their later countrymen will become known for: “Yes, we were really there.” Now we, the moviegoers, have a chance to do the same. No, not really, but it’s good to try. A movie I’m glad I saw; not a movie I’ll likely watch again. You might also consider Iris Chang’s history of the massacre, or James Yin’s photographic history.

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