Movie review: ‘City of Life and Death’ a rarity that reveals the horrors of war

Ed Symkus

War is hell. War is futile. There are no winners.

Anyone desiring proof needs to look no further than this emotionally and physically brutal portrayal of true events in 1937 China, when the Japanese army invaded and destroyed the city of Nanking and decimated half of its 600,000 citizens and soldiers.

“City of Life and Death” first presents a brief written history of what happened over a six-week period in China, and then it launches into a horrific assault on the senses of viewers. Air and tank attacks on the walled city led soon after to Japanese soldiers marching right in on the helpless, leaderless civilians who had no idea where to turn.

The fact that Chinese soldiers at least attempt to fight back from rooftops, ambush style, doesn’t do much good, as they’re quickly and easily defeated by the determined and better-trained Japanese military.

But amidst the documentary feel that director Chuan Lu gives the film, which was shot among bombed-out buildings, rubble and bodies strewn everywhere, there are also dramatic stories of the human condition.

There’s the proud Sgt. Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi), a Japanese soldier who’s there to do his job but who knows that what he’s doing is morally reprehensible. There’s John Rabe (John Paisley), who’s working with the Nazis –– who remain far off in Germany –– to save Chinese soldiers and citizens in a supposed “safety zone” for survivors within the city. And there’s Miss Jiang (Yuanyuan Gao), who tries to keep a semblance of order and protection in the women’s section of a decrepit refugee camp.

Chuan Lu gives us fierce gun battles with cameras right up in people’s faces, and he has those cameras move right along with soldiers as they run through the remnants of streets. We see the Japanese capturing already-defeated Chinese soldiers, tying up women, looting stores and executing civilians.

It’s a re-creation of some of the most hideous events that made up what became known as the Nanking Massacre.

Although most of the film is sad, heartbreaking and haunting, there is, near the end –– almost unbelievably –– a profound act of kindness. One that, alas, in no way reduces the horror of what has been going on.

“City of Life and Death” is a rarity, an art film about war, a powerful piece of cinema that you’ll be thinking about for a long time. I saw it a week ago and the film is still with me.

CITY OF LIFE AND DEATH (R for wartime violence, sexuality, brief nudity.) Written and directed by Chuan Lu With Hideo Nakaizumi, Yuanyuan Gao, John Paisley. 4 stars out of 4.