City of Life and Death (2009) tells the story of the war atrocities of Nanjing China 1937, when the Japanese Imperial Army invaded the former Chinese capital, committing mass murders, ritual rapes and horryfying torture of the citizens. This is not a typical war story, or at least, not one that is told in a typical manner.The Chinese director Lu Chuan chooses not to take sides, prefering to show the realities rather than to offer any particular commentary.
The plot is not a condensed one, but rather slowly building from the destinies of several characters that are entwined, albiet in a somewhat dispersed and ambigous fashion. However, in combination with the slow pace, this functions to only highlight the realities of war as brutal, uncertain and as relative as they are. Sergeant Kadokawa is battling against the Chinese as well as himself in a moral struggle, Miss Jiang is using all her strength and resources to save as many lives as she can from the ruthless Japanese, Lu Xiaonxing fights bravely for his motherland and the besieged capital city, while Mr. Tang is trying to find a compromise between offering his family comfort and security and staying loyal to China. All this is palyed out in a stark black and white pallette which offers a more implied than brutally represented violence, which only serves to make the impression much stronger and harrowing on the viewer.
The most developped character and central through-out (if one may describe him that way given his stoic and measured performance) is Kadokawa, outstandingly portrayed by Hideo Nakaizumi. More educated than the rest of his fellow soldiers, he seems more prone to emotions and thought. He doesn’t cease to fight for his own country but at the same time doesn’t fail to notice the wrong they are doing, struggling to find balance between national loyalty and morale righteousness. For this reason, his actions are confused (to both himself and the viewer), his gestures uncertain in their intentions but undercut by a snese of kindness. This is masterfully conveyed by Nakaizumi, the emotions he develops for the ‘woman of comfort’ are nothing but touching.
Even though it was filmed in colour, City of Life and Death is shown in black and white, which adds a certain gravity, a more realistic edge to it. What is more, the image and composition are outstanding, trade marked by close-ups of faces, lingering on the pained eyes of characthers , with scenes of empty devasted and deseted spaces contrasted with the overcrowded panic of interiors.The sound design is worth special mention, with hardly any music used (its presence felt only to emphasize the most dramatic of moments). The clear, crisp sound of gun blasts or explosions or a piercing scream are never as ominous or disturbing as the long moments of pressing silence throughout the film.
Although quite slow and calm (as much as a war film can be), its power lies beneath the surface, in the deep contrasts it puts together – of life becoming death and death becoming a way of life, of darkness and light, of smiles on blood stained faces and of songs of victory stopped by a wave of fatal bullets. City of Life and Death is a film in which life is almost impossible and even the luxury of death is denied.
Sabina Pasaniuc (CUEAFS)