Wednesday, April 13, 2011

City of Life and Death

"City of Life and Death" finds its biggest success in its tremendous handling of large-scale scenes. With intense cross-cutting and strong use of the close-up, Lu Chuan finds a way to get across many a POV in a scene where it seems hard. In doing this, he imbues these moments with a remarkable intimacy. However, when the film observes a naturally personal episode, it can't quite get the tone right, and it ends up feeling superficial and sudsy.

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+


Greg said...

One of the few films where handheld cameras actually added to the realism, rather than detracted from it.

I found some elements near the end of the film took me out of the movie for a bit, as I tried to figure out what was going on to whom, but otherwise a solid and deeply disturbing film about a part of WWII that should be more well-known.

Nick Duval said...

Yeah, the ending of the film, along with the very beginning, is its most dubious portion. But this film was so unsettling, so atmospheric, in between the bookends that I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.

Ibetolis said...

I concur with your reading of the films more sentimentalised and personal reflections, there did indeed seem to be something out of time with the rest of the films action scenes.

I also found the film to be rather trashy in the way it almost seemed to wallow in the suffering of people, of course this is based on actual atrocities and war crimes but what ever happened to the less is more maxim?

I stand by the films ending though, I found that to be one of the more chilling pats of the film - the whole dance ceremony was mesmerising - and only wished the rest of the film had taken as many chances.

Good review of a flawed but memorable, if for some horrifying images, film.

Nick Duval said...

Perhaps it is a wee bit trashy, but there's also something to be said for meeting things head-on.

The dance was a nice standalone scene, and it may have been "taking a chance," but to me it was a chance not particularly worth taking. You're right in some ways (it's definitely an arresting juxtaposition), but I'm unsure if it's really in the service of the film.