Monday, May 09, 2011

Nanjing: City of Life and Death

It may well be the only episode of WWII in which Americans and Germans worked together in a common humanitarian cause. Unfortunately, the few Westerners remaining in Nanjing are vastly outnumbered by the marauding Japanese Imperial Army. The resulting horrors of the Japanese occupation are rendered in both graphic and deeply personal terms in Lu Chuan’s City of Life and Death (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York at Film Forum.

The Nationalist army never had a chance in 1937. They were outnumbered and vastly out-gunned by the invading Japanese. He might be a conqueror, but this no place for Kadokawa. He has difficulty treating human beings as the spoils of war. His comrades have no such reservations, as rape and arbitrary executions become commonplace on the streets of Nanking (as it was then known in the west). Shocked by the brutality, a small group of foreigners, led by Nazi Party member in good-standing John Rabe, establish a safety zone to protect the civilian population. While the Japanese respect Rabe as a fellow ally, they will tolerate his interference only so long.

While there is one brilliantly staged scene of urban combat early in the film, City is far more about the war crimes than the war proper. In large measure, it covers the same historical events as Florian Gallenberger’s bio-drama John Rabe, but Lu’s narrative is more fractured, much like the memories of a survivor with post-traumatic stress disorder. Indeed, few heroics are to be found here, just isolated moments of humanity.

Indeed, there are devastating scenes in City, but perhaps none as strong as those involving Tang, Rabe’s loyal Chinese right-hand, whose desperate attempts to protect his family leads to tragedy worthy of Greek antiquity. Indeed, what often makes the events of City so catastrophic is the helpless inevitability of them, as when Ms. Jiang, Rabe’s colleague on the Safety Committee, performs perhaps the film purest act of courage.

Essentially playing a man shell-shocked by his fellow troops, Hideo Nakaizumi personifies anguish as Kadokawa. Not surprisingly though, the film belongs to the Chinese cast. Better known as a comic, Fan Wei’s pathos is genuinely devastating as Tang. Of course, suffering has many faces in City, like the beautiful Yuko Miyamoto, who is simply haunting as Yuriko, the “comfort woman” whom Kadokawa falls in love with. Unfortunately, the historical figure of John Rabe gets somewhat short shrift, both from Lu’s script and John Paisley’s unflattering performance.

Starkly arresting, Cao Yu’s black-and-white cinematography perfectly fits the film’s existential nature. It is tour-de-force work from Lu, who segues assuredly from scenes of large scale set pieces to delicate moments of quiet intimacy. This is grandly ambitious auteur-worthy work, but it also falls well within the current trend in Hong Kong/Chinese cinema to refight the Second Sino-Japanese War, more frequently manifested in action films like Legend of the Fist and Ip Man. It clearly suits the government censors, but the timing is a little awkward here, coming when many cineastes are doggedly raising funds and awareness for Japan as it copes with the aftermath of the recent earthquake and tsunami. Regardless, City is highly recommended when it opens this Wednesday (5/11) at Film Forum, as is supporting the Red Cross here and the Japan Society’s relief fund here.