City of Life and Death (Nanjing Nanjing)

City of Life and Death (Nanjing Nanjing)

Directed By: Lu Chuan


Wildly exceeding my expectations, this Chinese produced film is an accessible, nuanced tale about the Japanese occupation of Nanjing just before the beginning of the Second World War. Shot in glorious black and white, the film has a sweeping, epic feel. Production design is impeccable, and the recreation of the action sequences is the equal of any major production. Yet it is in the characters, finely drawn, complex, engaging, where the film shines.

I had expected, purely out of ignorance, that this tale would be simply one of narrow-minded retribution, a “John Wayne-versus-the-Japs” type of cinema that Hollywood produced for decades. Given China’s notoriously strict codes regarding certain topics, it was heartening to see that this was no mere propaganda tool. Much like Eastwood’s “Letters from Iwo Jima”, the film paints a picture of the Japanese with historical sensitivity, recognizing that the bestial acts aren’t always perpetrated by the inhuman.

The film obviously has a keen point of view, but it never comes across as agenda or polemic. Instead, this is a very contemporary telling of this tale, one certainly sits comfortably beside such Western offerings as “The Piano” or perhaps even “Schindler’s List”.

Picked up for distribution by National Geographic (!), this is a hard hitting yet extremely effective film, a unique take on this subject matter, and well worth seeking out.

Grade: A-


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