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2009-09-17 02:03:02|  分类: 默认分类 |  标签: |举报 |字号 订阅

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(It's an old review, but kind of missed it when it got made)

by Ard Vijn, May 30, 2009 2:19 AM
When I found this review in our forum I had no choice but to moveit to the main page. It's not the first time that loyal forumerEight Rooks wrote something of such high quality that we just hadto put it up here for all to see, but this time he's in even betterform than usual.
His review of "City of Life and Death" is... well, read foryourself.
The stage is yours, Eight Rooks:


The Rape of Nanking remains one of the most notorious war crimesin history, taking place over several weeks during the Second WorldWar from late 1937 to early 1938 when the Japanese army capturedthe then Chinese capital. After entering the city the Japanesetroops are widely held to have embarked on a period of sustainedatrocities against the survivors, looting, raping, carrying outsummary executions and wholesale massacres of both prisoners of warand the civilian population. Debate over the precise number ofcasualties, the nature of the alleged atrocities and thereliability of various witnesses continues to this day; while fewJapanese deny anything happened at all, their government has yet toissue an official apology and those right-wing factions who insistthe Nanking “Incident” remains a fabrication concocted by theChinese do command some level of political backing.

With this in mind, one could be forgiven for going into "City ofLife and Death" with some pretty strong preconceptions. MainlandChinese domestic cinema is not short of blatant propagandademonizing the country’s aggressors; something like "On TheMountain of Taihang" is enough to make Michael Bay look like aparagon of subtlety, and even Feng Xiaogang’s "The Assembly" iseasily interpreted as a strident call to arms. City… dramatizes aperiod in history only (very) vocal niche concerns insist nevertook place, where compelling evidence suggests thousands of peoplesuffered appalling brutality on a daily basis. Surely this providessome excuse for the expected syrupy melodrama, stoic nationalistsermonizing and outpouring of collective grief?

Yet startlingly, "City of Life and Death" aims much higher thanthis.

(continued after the break...)
Director Lu Chuan ("The Missing Gun", "Kekexili") is neither amouthpiece for the party line nor a firebrand, his previous twofilms showing a keen eye for the drama, the black humor and thevisual poetry in the day-to-day realities of life in two verydifferent environments under the influence of the Communist regime."The Missing Gun" followed a single rural policeman trying to findthe titular weapon he misplaced and the escalating consequences ofhis forgetfulness. "Kekexili" adapted the true story of thevolunteer patrolmen hopelessly over-stretched guarding one of themost remote regions on Earth and the poachers who attempt to outwitthem.

"City of Life and Death" broadens the director’s scope to takein a far larger cast, some based on real people, some imagined,from Nazi businessman John Rabe (who helped establish a “safetyzone” in the heart of the city and saved countless refugees in theprocess) to a Chinese resistance fighter leading a beleaguered bandof rebels, to a Japanese officer slowly falling apart under theimpact of the horrors he stands witness to day by day. A furthersurprise; unlike previous mainland period pieces, or even recentfilms dealing with the Nanking Massacre such as the Germanproduction "John Rabe", it is a true ensemble piece, no-onerelegated to a cipher, flower vase or stereotype.

The different stories necessitate some degree of skipping fromthread to thread, with major sequences bookended by title cards inthe form of postcards from the city. The first stretch is almostdeceptively low-key. The opening scenes can be confusing to anyonenot schooled in the period and even when the film finds its rhythmthere is a feeling of familiarity. An early battle sequence isterrifically directed (comfortably eclipsing "The Assembly") yetcan’t help but reinforce the impression this is safe ground.

And then the action winds down (it is in fact the only suchsequence), and the film transitions brilliantly, terrifyingly, intothe real meat of the narrative. So much public outrage over thelegitimacy of modern military conflict centers on the legality ofeither side’s actions, the assumption that thousands of heavilyarmed men are going to behave themselves around defenselessnon-combatants because this is the only human thing to do. Nanking,like Bosnia or Rwanda after it, entertained no such niceties. Theforeign nationals who established the Safety Zone had to pleadtheir case to the occupying Japanese forces day by day, which stilldid not stop troops from breaking in on a whim to carry off morevictims, many of whom never returned. Outside the Zone was hell, byall accounts, with John Rabe and his compatriots able to do littleother than document the atrocities.

City of Life and Death’s depiction of these terrifying weeksfeatures some of the most harrowing images ever committed to film.While rarely explicit – this is far from the exploitation cinema of"Men Behind The Sun" and its ilk – the film hammers home that fromthis point onwards, all bets are definitely off. The massacres,with thousands of helpless Chinese machine-gunned on an industrialscale, are genuinely shocking for all their relative lack of gore.Even the more character-driven, quieter moments can still reinforcethe creeping realization no-one is safe; a later sequence withwomen volunteering to sacrifice themselves into prostitution forthe Japanese soldiers, or the aftermath of Rabe’s eventualdeparture from the city in the final reels, are so emotionallydraining as to border on unwatchable.

Yet for all this the film never judges, never resorts todidactic life lessons or swelling strings in the background. Thereis plenty for the Communist regime to approve of – the mainJapanese viewpoint is an obvious cry of “What have we done?” – butCity… is a world away from the poisonous caricatures of, say, "IpMan". Lu Chuan switches from the massacres to the mundane (scenesof the Japanese troops relaxing as they practice for the ceremonyto mark their occupation of the city) and does this with a calmassurance that puts the viewer in mind of Bong Joon-Ho ("Memoriesof Murder", "The Host"); few directors today can manage to temperabsolute horror with such wry black humor.

The film is noticeably short of perfect. The pacing in theopening sequence can seem somewhat intimidating, with somebackground left unexplained and the title cards difficult to read.Though the sets are rarely less than stunning – the opening battlesequence uses the blasted cityscape to tremendous visual anddynamic effect – the monochrome cinematography is a little too draband would have benefited from a sharper color palette with clearerblacks and markedly less grey. The acting hits some unbelievablehigh notes, particularly from Liu Ye as the resistance leader andcomedian Fan Wei as a collaborator with the Nazis in the Safe Zone.Nonetheless, Hideo Nakaizumi as Takada, the Japanese lead, ismarkedly outclassed. While never jarring or overplayed hisperformance is simply not up to carrying what is admittedly afairly obvious stand-in for an entire nation’s act ofcontrition.

Nonetheless, "City of Life and Death" is a revelation,comfortably proving mainland Chinese film is more than capable ofkeeping the Communist regime happy while still producing absolutelyterrific cinema. While it is uncertain if this reflects any kind ofchange in policy from the party or their censors, it is worthnoting Lu Chuan received multiple death threats for City’s refusalto demonize the Japanese, yet a member of the Politburo personallyintervened to keep the film in theaters. For those viewers who feelthey’re up to some of the most heartbreaking cinematic set-piecesin recent memory without the possibility of Hollywood redemption,or exploring the furthest extremes of terror and desperationwithout resorting to flooding the screen with gore, "City of Lifeand Death" ranks among the finest films ever made and comes hugelyrecommended.

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