For many years, I have been waiting for a powerful film that would show people of the atrocities that took place from December 1937-January 1938 in the capital city of Nanking.
While there have been several films on what occurred in Nanking over seventy years ago, young writer/director Lu Chuan accomplished what many felt he couldn’t do, to create a realistic portrayal of the genocide.
Known as the Nanking Massacre and also the “Rape of Nanking”, the atrocities were committed during the Second Sino-Japanese War when the soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army slaughtered civilians of all ages, raped women until they died. It is estimated that 300,000 people were massacred.
Despite records kept by Nazi-supporter John Rabe (the person who tried to save the Chinese in Nanking by developing a safe zone) , the records kept by Westerners working for the Red Cross or were missionaries and journalists and residents who witnessed the atrocities, to this day, the genocide of the civilians of Nanking is still being disputed by Japanese nationalists who believe that the massacre was fabricated.
Needless to say, because of the war and atrocities that were committed during the war, it remains to be a tense and problematic situation between both countries today.
I have researched the Nanking (or Nanjing) Massacre since I was in college, as my eyes were opened to the atrocities committed, I know that many people around the world are not familiar of what happened to the Chinese people. And since the ’90s, I have been wanting to see novels receive film adaptations and while there have been several films featuring John Rabe and also bits and pieces of the battle of Nanking, there have not been many movies that would realistically capture the battle but also the atrocities committed by the Japanese Imperial troops towards the Chinese people of Nanking.
Especially since its a touchy subject and the fact that many Chinese still hold a lot of pain and anger towards the Japanese because of the war. And for director Lu Chuan, his goal was to create a realistic portrayal of the atrocities committed towards the innocent civilians of Nanking but also to show a sympathetic side to the Japanese and show that while what the Japanese Imperial soldiers did do to Chinese was barbaric, it does not make the whole country barbaric.
In an interview with Empire Magazine, Lu Chuan said, “Yes, Japanese people committed a crime but maybe it’s not a fault of a certain nation, maybe it’s a fault of the war, so I’m not going to make a movie against a certain nation, but against the war. If the government forces us to go to the battlefield, everybody can be a killer.”
But most importantly, it was a film that Chuan, who did countless research, lived and studied in Nanking wanted the film for people outside of China to know about what took place in Nanking.
“City of Life and Death” was created with a budget of $10 million, casting of hundreds of people which would include both Chinese and Japanese talent and the film would receive rave reviews from critics worldwide and would win numerous awards around the world for “Best Film” and “Best Cinematography”.
Heartbreaking, brutal but the most honest portrayal of the atrocities committed in Nanking for cinema.
For so long, I have waited for a film of this caliber to be made on the “Rape of Nanking”. Because it would probably answer a lot of questions for many people of why there are continued tensions between China and Japan. But also to understand how war can make regular people do terrible things.
Back in college, I learned a lot about the Armenian Genocide and Nanking Massacres but while my college due to its large Armenian student population would have memorials for those who were killed, there is not much out there for people to know about what transpired in Nanking in 1937-1938 unless you go out and look for it.
Having studied Asian culture (especially with focus on Japanese culture), it was interesting to see things on brother’s side who is more closer to Chinese culture and him experiencing first hand through his Chinese father-in-law of the long-lasting pain and anger that Chinese have towards Japanese. It was an intriguing juxtaposition because I recently wrote about how my grandfather fought against the Japanese in World War II but he told me that what happened then was due to war.
So, as I was researching this film, I ran a quote by director Lu Chuan with Filmmaker in which the director said, “Why is there war? I wanted to make a movie about the Nanjing massacre, but then I started to explore the history of massacres, during the Ming and Qing dynasties, and learned they happened everywhere. It’s not something that belongs to Japanese people. So I decided to [articulate] this kind of feeling in my movie. I don’t want my son or daughter, younger brother or sister to look at the Japanese [in the] way [we did]. It’s not true. The massacre was in 1937. After 70 years, we have to reconsider it from a different angle. The Japanese troops were criminal — but the biggest criminal was the war itself. It twisted human nature. It pushed normal people to pull the trigger. I was in the army for several years, you know. I know if I was in uniform on the battlefield, I would pull the trigger on strangers if the [military] authorities asked me to.”
And in China, since childhood, people are taught about what happened during their war against Japan and what Japan did to them, it doesn’t help when Japanese nationals continue to say that the genocide was fabricated. And while the modern younger generation (in Japan) feels no attachment to what transpired in the past, they are not taught about the atrocities committed by their own people and pretty much, it’s part of the history that is hidden from them. But many young people know that Japan at the time, are responsible for a lot of terrible things due to war, a lot of other countries have also done the same throughout time.
So, war is always ugly and war brings out the worst in humanity.
And what happened to the people of Nanking back in December 1937-January 1938 is shocking, disturbing and you can’t believe how people can be so cruel and barbaric but it happened. And there is only so much one can do by reading a book, online and seeing the photos. But for many people, they need the visual and “City of Life and Death” amazingly captures the massacres, the pain, the suffering of people with so much efficacy. People have to remember, this was a low-budget film featuring hundreds of people, many who have never worked on a film before. But yet, each role was crucial, each scene must look realistic and for everyone who participated in this film, they did a magnificent job in making the film real for us viewers.
As mentioned earlier, this is the second film where I had to pause and collect my thoughts and just take time and wait a few minutes because the massacre of innocents was making me feel sickened and to the point where I felt like crying because I have never seen humanity become so cruel to innocent people. I know genocide has happened within my lifetime but what took place in Nanking is shocking. From the massacre of 300,000 people, from soldiers having contests on how many people they can behead (and this was featured in a major Japanese newspaper publication as two soldiers were having a contest), to the rape of thousands of women and girls who were raped repeatedly until they died. And there was no respect for these women. These soldiers did their thing and not shown in this film but you can find photos are what soldiers inserted in women after they killed them.
And what is so unforgettable are the details captured by the cinematography of the film, when thousands are shot to death, people being buried alive, trying to escape but they can’t. But just looking at the eyes of the characters, the tears, the lifelessness, the fear and in death.
Filmmaker Lu Chuan had encountered many challenges in making of this film. From those who didn’t want to support it because of its content or that it was a film that a young director could not handle, but he proved them wrong. He was able to write and direct a film that captured the atrocities and brutality against the Chinese people but also trying to show not exactly sympathy but to show that even the Japanese like the character Kadokawa did things that he did not want to do but because it was war, he was conflicted and starts to eat upon his soul.
The Blu-ray release is absolutely fantastic, from amazing picture quality and an immersive lossless soundtrack to a making-of that is not your average run-of-the mill non-exciting feature but there is a lot included in terms of sharing with the viewer of the challenges and the emotional state of the talent who took part in this film. Because it was a thought-provoking film that has not been explored in this magnitude and the result is literally epic.
In fact, this film had so much of a profound effect on me that I hope to visit the Memorial Hall of Victims of the Nanjing Massacre in Nanjing.
Overall, “City of Life and Death” is the most visceral war film that I have seen to effectively capture the atrocities and the brutality of the Nanking massacre in cinema. This is an unforgettable film that resonates within you for a very long time with its realistic and stunning cinematography.