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  Publicity Stills of
"City of Life And Death"
(Courtesy of Shaw)

Genre: Drama/War
Director: Lu Chuan
Cast: Liu Ye, Fan Wei, Hideo Nakaizumi, Gao Yuan Yuan, Jiang Yiyan, John Paisley
RunTime: 2 hrs 11 mins
Released By: Shaw
Rating: M18 (Some Sexual Scenes)
Official Website: www.mediaasia.com/cld/

Opening Day: 8 October 2009 (Exclusively at Lido & Balestier)


Set in China 1937, the country is at war with Japan. The Chinese, lead by charismatic general Liu Ye are determined to repel the enemy and defend their home, but only to face Japanese army with little ammunition. Amidst the brutality, a Japanese soldier Hideo Nakaizumi observed the many pain and tortures the war brought. Hell is gradually consuming Nanking, now a place whereby death is easier than life.

Movie Review:

There are many movies and documentaries out there on the Sino-Japanese war of the 1930s, but few which have taken quite the stance that Chinese director Lu Chuan had opted for in making a film about the Rape of Nanking, which is a broadly even examination into the propensity of madness in humankind, with viewpoints adopted from both sides. Some are already up in arms about having a sympathetic Japanese soldier in the lead, but I feel that they are missing the point. To this effect, Lu Chuan has shrewdly encapsulated what we normally have a tendency to do when we see injustice committed by the majority – we keep quiet, and fear to take affirmative action.

To not demonize everyone in broad strokes is what Lu Chuan had expertly treaded in this powerful, emotionally charged film. For the Japanese sergeant Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi), we follow his point of view on the atrocities committed, and share in his horror that his countrymen are capable of such inhumane, barbaric acts that we read about in history texts – the bayoneting, machine-gunning in cold blood, and the burning and burying alive the POWs captured, acts which he visibly disapproves of, but is powerless to do anything. On the flip side, there’s the Japanese interpreter Mr Tang (Fan Wei) which history would ostracize as being a traitor for seeking favours from the Japanese, but again balanced by the human story of personal survival behind him, where concessions were made on the trust that his family would be taken care of.

I’ve been impressed by Lu Chuan’s earlier film Kekexili (Mountain Patrol), and he just upped the ante and showcased to the world that he’s capable of pulling off a film of such an epic scale, being conferred the best film award at the recent San Sabastian International Film Festival. There's no need to look beyond the impact of the film's initial minutes, which set the tone and viewpoints that the film will take.

Shot in black and white to highlight the grimness of war, you'll be left gasping for breath as it's an extremely tense opening, where scenes of mass exodus, and the invasion of the Japanese troops, drip the entire film in fear, partly also because of hindsight knowledge on what's to come. But instead of demonizing everything from the onset, we see how the Japanese troops got apprehensive as they sieve through a torn, ghostly city looking for Chinese soldiers, until they chance upon a church full of refugees, amongst which the Chinese troops have been hiding. Every one on either side are just as confused and afraid, and this bewildering stand-off alone, sparks off the beginning of a series of descent into madness that will follow.

City of Life and Death is broadly split into two major acts. The first being the initial hours just as the invasion of the Japanese started, and the other taking place a week into the occupation, where the atrocities committed get systematically portrayed on screen. Fans of action packed war movies will be drawn to the film's first arc, featuring a final guerrilla resistance by the Chinese soldiers (starring Liu Ye in heroic mode) against incredible odds in attempts to dent the invasion. It's a finely crafted war sequence which will satisfy action junkies, and one which rivals those in Saving Private Ryan, and even Feng Xiaogang's The Assembly.

But it's the second act that proved to be the real deal. Highlighting the events that take place within the safety zone as set up by German John Rabe (the historical character here portrayed by John Paisley) and other Westerners, it's an area they try their best to shield refugees and injured soldiers, while constantly fending off Japanese troops who raid the camp to rape and plunder, no matter how futile it may all seem, with constant intimidation, and always on knife's edge. It is in this act that emotions run high, and you're left with the vivid, bitter after-taste about the living hell that the inhabitants had to endure, at times being put into catch-22 situations, or degrading ones such as being asked, for the welfare of the community, to be sacrificed as comfort women.

Those without knowledge of the past, will definitely have their eyes opened, and hopefully be induced to find out and read up more about these horrors of war and occupation, especially when the opposing camps have psychos like Kadokawa's counterpart Ida, played by Ryu Kohata with much nastiness. There are plenty of lingering facial close ups throughout the film of both the victors and the vanquished, with the ensemble cast putting in extremely fine performances, with so much being said with little nuances when the camera comes right up to them, making it feel very personal, and claustrophobic as well in situations where there is little room to maneuver.

The film did taper downwards as it reached the finale in a spin on redemption, and it provided an opportunity to decompress after having spent time witnessing the dramatic portrayal of the events in Nanking. If there's a minor gripe on the presentation of the film, that would be the inter-titles used, where near illegible cursive writing would make you squint in trying to figure out what's written. But that is just a minor technicality, which should not stand in the way of you making a beeline for the film. Don't miss this!

Movie Rating:

(The horrors of war-time occupation portrayed in an emotionally charged film)

Review by Stefan Shih


. The Message (2009)

. Assembly (2008)

. Nanking (2007)


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