Sunday, April 1, 2012

City of Life and Death (Nanjing! Nanjing!) ***This post not safe for children***

2009, 132 minutes, R – mild language, endless rapes and violence, many naked dead bodies, children thrown from windows, etc.

IMDB says... In 1937 Japan laid siege to Chinese capital of Nanking, this is a dramatization of the battle.

The 73rd Virgin says... Mostly death, folks. Except for rapes – which mostly end in death. In a long intro we see some Chinese regulars attempting to escape the city in retreat while a “supervisory unit” tries to kill them for desertion. Post cards and dispatches from December 1937, in handy English, describe the Japanese advance from Shanghai to the Nanking wall.

In an interesting dramatic maneuver the movie then humanizes a Japanese soldier, Sergeant Kadokawa, enough to serve as our eyes into the Japanese side of the best small-scale battle scenes I’ve seen since Saving Private Ryan. We also get to know a handful of Chinese soldiers and their little feral kid who strips bullets from ammo belts and delivers the bullets and grenades to rifle-toting soldiers. For your viewing convenience, the Japanese have helmets, the Chinese don’t.

In a shot that echoes the hand reaching for the butterfly in “All Quiet on the Western Front” a brave Japanese reaches for a hand-crank alarm that signals doom for the remaining Chinese.

This takes us about 28 minutes into a 2 hour 12 minute movie.

Eventually the Chinese surrender and the victors begin the well-organized murder of thousands of soldiers. Thousands are herded to the Yangtze and machine-gunned, thousands are herded to “the 10,000-corpse-ditch” and machine-gunned, some are used for bayonet practice, and some are buried alive with the Japanese dancing on the soil to tamp it down. On and on. Perhaps thanks to budget restrictions we only get one giant overhead partly CGI'd weeping deity shot of the scale of the slaughter. The Japanese arrived with 240,000 soldiers. We never see more than about 100 at a time. The remainder of the action is presented in small scale at ground level.

Now we’re basically re-watching Schindler’s List, and I don't mean that to be dismissive. I guess there are only so many ways to show barbarity. One can have garish acting and horrified close-ups of faces and leave the worst to the imagination or one can clinically point the camera and let the audience decide how rapidly to deaden their own response. Director/Writer Lu Chuan chooses the latter but also jumps between scenes of pleasant, fun-loving Japanese soldiers taking baths, participating in soldierly games and talking about home, and scenes of them terrorizing the completely disarmed populous. Graciously, he spares us beheadings, although there are several heads lying around, and he spares us any images of the invaders' apparent fondness for leaving female corpses with sharp objects stuck into their privates as can be found at Wikipedia. (Update - beheadings were in the initial cut but Chinese censors removed them. Chuan also received death threats for allowing a sympathetic Japanese character to appear.)

There is a lull as we meet the European members of the Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone led by Nazi-in-name-only German businessman, John Rabe. Wisely, all these western characters are played by little-known actors including a humorously towering female missionary who tries to stop a series of rapes.

And then begins the disorganized murder of maybe 200,000 civilians. The period identified as “The Rape of Nanking” was around 6 weeks. I can’t tell how much time this movie covers. Scenes of random brutality are interspersed with a handful of domestic scenes as well-connected Chinese civilians try to protect their daughters by cutting their hair or by hiding them. Occasionally Rabe or his assistant Mr. Tang try to slow the slaughter. Here Mr. Tang tries to teach Japanese to his charges before interrupting a New Year's rape session.

Mr. Tang makes a devil’s bargain to save his family and is only partially successful, but he also brings about an invasion of the Safety Zone by admitting that there are some wounded Chinese soldiers there. When Rabe is called home by the Fuhrer, what little protection he can offer goes with him.

We follow Sergeant Kadokawa as he visits the only Japanese comfort girl on the front lines. Having never been with a woman, he accidentally, um, “spills his seed”, to use the biblical vernacular, but she treats him kindly and he falls in love to the extent possible under these circumstances, bringing her gifts of canned fish and candy on the New Year.

The Japanese demand 100 women to serve as comfort girls and Rabe gets to stand in front of the refugees and ask for volunteers. A few do, including a probable prostitute with jingling ankle bracelet who has already been raped, and several leading ladies of the former city, in a hopeless attempt to protect others. Six of the hundred make it out alive. Kadokawa treats one of the Chinese as kindly as he can only watching while others rape her. He then gets to see her body tossed on a kind of “bring out your dead” cart and hauled away.

The best scene is the surreal Japanese celebration of their victory, complete with Kodo drummers, and a choreographed parade through an utterly ruined and disinterested city. Who is this for?

There is one dramatically dodgy scene involving a family splitting up as Rabe leaves town. It takes forever. The scope of the slaughter makes it hard to focus on two people. There are several good and tense scenes involving various tricks played by the Chinese to help a handful escape, but all is pretty much hopeless.

Kadokawa provides the only dramatic conclusion by allowing a few to get away and then by affecting his own escape. A child who has seen every horror imaginable finally gets far enough away from the city to laugh out loud. Title cards at the end show the lifespan of several major characters. I have no idea how much these characters, especially Kadokawa, are based on fact, but it is pretty effective. A whole lot of history just stopped in the winter of 1938.

E.R. Chamberlin describes the sack of Rome in May 1527 thusly, "Those nuns who were killed after being raped were fortunate, for their sisters were dragged around like animals to be auctioned off to man after man before finding the relief of death...Every soldier became a wealthy man. Some of the more astute set up asylums in which the wealthier Romans could find temporary safety...Over two thousand murdered citizens had been thrown into the Tiber by the end of May and nearly ten thousand more were inefficiently buried, so that with the advent of summer plague arose in the city...By the middle of June, Rome was a dead city."

In our beginning is our end. To those who prayerfully mouth "never again", I would reply, "perhaps, but somehow always before."

If we assign a unit of measure, say, “Schindlers”, for filmed genocide and mass terror, and if we assign its namesake a reference value of 100, then this rates about 90 Schindlers. Had I seen this in a theater, I'm not sure where on the screen I would look for relief.

I despise those who prescribe movies like medicine or assign them like homework. You will have to determine where your course of self-study takes you. This movie is completely engaging, not chilly, and to the limited extent that I really understand the art form, I think it is good to great art. I don’t think I ever want to see it again.

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