It’s only a feature film, and it’s shot in black and white, but City of Life and Death is an intense, indelible experience. It tells of the Imperial Japanese Army’s capture and occupation of Nanjing, the former Chinese capital, in 1937, when several hundred thousand Chinese were massacred and tens of thousands gang-raped.
It’s about extremes of human behaviour and experience, but it’s not gory, sensationalist or propagandist. With almost no dialogue, the camera registers the experience on the faces of half a dozen participants, not least two Japanese officers.
Director Lu’s command of tone (cutting from the bayoneting of prisoners to athletics and dance practice) and of scale (from the machine-gunning of thousands to a half dozen naked bodies wheeled on a handcart through a soldiers’ mess) can be gut-wrenching. The film, though, is not a horror schlock but a compassionate humanist epic about militarism.
Mostly it follows the aftermath of battle as a few thousand Chinese shelter in an international safety zone. Lu sets solidarity against violence, with women volunteering to become ‘comforters’ for the Japanese troops in order to get food into the zone. It’s never clear cut or simply black and white: we see amongst the Chinese, cowardice and self-preservation, along with the heroism and self-sacrifice. We follow a Japanese soldier, a militarist to the core, whose only moment of fellow feeling is with a man who has stood in for someone else before a firing squad.
The killer, Lu makes clear, is the mindset. This is a stunning celebration of life and humanity.