Even though it takes a while for it to get a coherent rhythm down, and even though it sometimes diverges into corny subplots involving sentimentalized prostitution, "City of Life and Death" still manages to give you an extremely startling sting. I shook as I watched this film, which displays a large amount of arbitrary cruelty, which makes shreds out of lives and bodies.
We see the Japanese come into Nanking, China, and not only take the city, but proceed to execute, separate, and commit other horrible acts upon the people living there. Referred to as the Rape of Nanking for a definite reason, this is a period in WWII that I was unaware of before I heard about this film and the documentary "Nanking." I wonder what other elements of this and other wars film is yet to cover.
The film follows various characters more than others, mostly from the Chinese side. One exception is Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi), a member of the Japanese military who feels some remorse for the horrible things that he does, unwittingly and not. He also becomes attached to a "comfort woman"; cue the subpar dramaturgy aforementioned. We also have, among others, Miss Jiang (Yuanyuan Gao), who is dedicated to the survival of the population of Nanking; Mr. Tan (Wei Fan), a man working for and living under the protection of a visiting Nazi (John Paisley); and a revolutionary (whose name I cannot find), who does what he feels must be done.
Filmed for a good reason in b&w, and with a score that at times hits, despite some wrong notes, the exactly right ones, "City of Life and Death" stands as a strong work that will inform and disquiet. It definitely could have been better in a multitude of areas, but it operates often on a level that transcends its shortcomings. B+