<i>City of LIfe and Death</i> (dir. Lu Chuan)

City of Life and Death (dir. Lu Chuan)

(Cross-published on dGenerate Films)

Lu Chuan’s controversial Nanjing Massacre movie City of Life and Deathpicked up the Best Director award at thefourth Asian Film Awards, held during the Hong Kong International Film Festival. While the film continues to gain attention following its successful theatrical run in China and international premiere at the Toronto Film Festival last year, it has yet to be shown theatrically in the US, following an aborted spring release with National Geographic.

Meanwhile, it’s generated a bit of a quarrel among film critics. Shelly Kraicer, who reviewed the film earlier on our site, issued a lengthier critique in Cinema-scope. An excerpt:

“A look at City of Life and Death’s genre and narrative strategies can demonstrate its importance in helping to establish what I’d like to call a nascent post-zhuxuanlu cinema. It is a full-out war epic, massively budgeted and vast in ambition. Huge sets of devastated Nanjing were built, and thousands of extras mobilized to illustrate the battle scenes that open the film. Lu films his striking set pieces in a beautifully modulated black and white, where cinematography, art direction, staging, music, and sound design all conspire to create massive, intentionally overwhelming images of violence, horror, and devastation.”

The review has drawn the ire of Asian film stalwart Tony Rayns (who happens to co-program the Asian film selections at the Vancouver Inernational Film Festival), who issues seven bullet-pointed rebuttals to Kraicer’s review. An excerpt:

As a long-term resident of Beijing, Shelly may have noticed that China’s unelected leadership (so sensitive to the least whisper of criticism) decided some years ago to stop pushing Maoist/communist slogans to legitimate its rule and decided instead to promote a strong nationalist consciousness. All factions of the leadership do it, including president Wen Jiabao’s and premier Hu Jintao’s. We saw the fruits of their endeavors in the behavior of Chinese students overseas when they beat up pro-Tibet and pro-Xinjiang protestors during the international tour of the Olympic torch. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Shelly that the hostility to City of Life and Death in China – after its initial enormous success with the public – might have something to do with its refusal to bow to this neo-nationalist tide. Nobody watching City of Life and Death could seriously interpret it as being pro-Japanese; the film shows Japanese soldiers committing numerous war-crimes, and does so without sensationalism and without finding any vicarious pleasure in the spectacle. But Lu’s decision to make one of his recurring protagonists a naïve Japanese sergeant effectively defuses the nationalist thrust found in earlier films about the massacres, such as Wu Ziniu’s unspeakable Don’t Cry Nanjing. In attacking Lu’s film, Shelly seems to be reaching for solidarity with his nationalist friends in Chinese film circles. My view is that the film deserves to be defended from their fatuous and dishonest attacks.

On the Cineaste website, dGenerate’s Kevin B. Lee has his own take . An excerpt:

The imperative to honor the longstanding domestic account of the tragedy, offset by the desire to avoid fraying international ties, and further complicated by the desire to appeal to a global audience with its own expectations of art-house entertainment, makes for one of the most compelling filmmaking gauntlets to be found. These three agendas—political, cultural, commercial—wage a battle within City of Life and Deaththat’s as compelling as the one the film depicts. The film certainly qualifies as an “incoherent text,” to borrow Robin Wood’s phrase, informed by competing social ideologies and commercial ambitions that result in a work of fascinating dissonance.

Full review here.

For an alternative view of the Japanese occupation of China and the story of “comfort women” – women who were forced to sexually serve Japanese soldiers – check out Ban Zhongyi’s extraordinary documentary Gai Shanxi and Her Sistersscreening at Asia Society on April 9.