Re-reading The Iliad, thoughts of war are much on my mind. Glorious war, brutal war. Well there’s not much glory in this film that depicts the run-up to WWII with Japan’s invasion of China and the historical tragedy known as “The Rape of Nanking” in 1937. Plenty of evidence though of man’s capacity to objectify his fellow-man, and to brutalize, rape, and murder those who are removed from the human race by the ability to reduce other humans to just the other.
We make much of mans separation from the rest of the animal kingdom by our advanced ability to think, to create, to problem solve. But man can also reduce ‘the other’ to abstraction – figures to be used, problems to be solved without regard to humanity, compassion or common decency. The sobering reality is that no nation-state, no ethnic group can be considered exempt from the forms of horrific behavior depicted in The City of Life and Death. It is estimated that there were 300,000 victims in the Nanking Massacre which includes the original invasion, the round-up of civilians, the policy of providing “comfort stations” for the occupying armies of Japan.
The title, The City of Life and Death is shorthand for the tragedy that sometimes life becomes so unbearable that death is easier than life. This idea is played out in several ways, ultimately by both sides. And the story, to its credit, attempts to show the story from both sides. Viewing this film you can easily understand the enmity and tension that sill remains and color the relationship between the Chinese and Japanese people. You see this come up in news reports from time to time, mentioned in various contexts. If you see this film you’ll certainly refer to it in your mind at the mention of these things.
There are some haunting scenes here. I especially think of the “volunteer” of the comfort women, hands being raised in the air to save some of their sisters, the details of how these women were harnessed to the bedpost, the piling of their used up bodies in a death wagon. It’s could be a scene out of the Black Plague years in the Middle Ages.
Filmed in black and white, the cinematography of Yu Cao is impressive,and the soundtrack strikes the right balance between somber and elegiac. It can be nearly unbearable to watch, but it’s a film that may change your perspective on war- unless you mistakenly take the view that those kinds of obscene behaviors can’t happen here. Hey, they already have.