War is Hell, even when the fighting stops.
Nanking, the capital of China. December, 1937. After a set of postcards and letters in English provide a little bit of context to events in the Second Sino-Japanese War prior to the invasion of the city (and maybe give the story the air of outsiderâ€™s legitimacy, the story begins. As Japanese soldiers are gearing up to enter Nanking (now called Nanjing), the Chinese soldiers inside are experiencing a breakdown in order and morale. Many of the soldiers attempt to flee the city while a few of them, including Lieutenant Lu, try and fail to prevent them from leaving. With the Chinese unable to put up a fight, the Japanese easily enter the city.
The Chinese soldiers still in the city go into hiding and the Japanese search for them. A small group of Japanese soldiers led by a man named Ida, enter a crowded church and find several soldiers amongst those in there. Though, they appear ready to surrender, Ida sends a soldier named Kadokawa to get re-enforcements. It is a scene of chaos in the church as the Japanese soldiers act aggressively towards everyone while trying to find the Chinese soldiers. At one point, a group of Japanese fire into a confession booth, thinking that there are Chinese soldiers in there, only to find that there were only unarmed women. Kadokawaâ€™s participation in this killing sends him halfway into a daze, but his fellow Japanese soldiers seem to double down.
Later on, Ida and his troops pull down a statue of Chinese Nationalist hero Sun Yat Sen, somewhat eerily reminding me of the toppling of the Saddam Hussein statue, though this may have just been coincidental. They continue roaming around the city in search of Chinese soldiers when they get ambushed. A group of Chinese soldiers, led by Lu, have been hiding in some of the bombed-out buildings, and start picking them off. What starts off seeming like a victory for the Chinese turns to defeat, as re-enforcements arrive to pound the remaining Chinese soldiers into submission. Lu and his surviving fellow soldiers (including a pre-teen boy named Xiaodouzi) are captured. All in all, the Japanese round up around five hundred Chinese soldiers during the initial fighting.
Up to this point, the movie seems like a standard war film, though maybe a little slower than normal. Aside from a couple of brief digressions into the life of civilians in an occupied city, the movie has focused mostly on the Japanese soldiers (primarily Kadokawa and Ida) and the Chinese soldiers. Had one gone into this movie blind to the context, one might watch the first third of the movie thinking that that is what the movie is about. However, this movie takes a sharp turn just over a third of the way through and starts following some civilian characters as well.
The first group of characters were already introduced in the movie. Mr. Tang is the secretary for John Rabe, a German businessman. Given that Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany have recently started down the path towards what would become a military alliance, Tang believes that he, his wife, his daughter, and his sister-in-law will be safe throughout the occupation. It eventually becomes apparent that his family is not as safe as he had assumed, and hard desperate decisions must be made before his family is destroyed.
The movie also introduces Miss Jiang, who is part of the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone for civilians. Working mostly with foreigners like Rabe and American schoolteacher Minnie Vautrin, Miss Jiang tries to keep the increasingly aggressive Japanese out of the Safety Zone and away from the civilians while trying to make the civilians (particularly the women) less easy targets. When one particularly uncooperative young woman named Xiaojiang refuses to cut her hair like all the women are told to do on the grounds that Miss Jiang had not either, Miss Jiang counters that her position on the International Committee excludes her from the threat of rape. As the Japanese keep looking for reasons to violate the sanctity of the safety zone and violate the humanity of those inside, Miss Jiang stubbornly stands as a shield against the Japanese, practically forcing herself to believe that she still has the authority to protect her fellow Chinese.
Aside from the relatively slow pace, there are hints early on that this is not just a typical war movie, particularly at the end of the battle sequence. Kadokawa walks down a street past an execution squad, a naked corpse, a civilian shot in the back by a passing soldier, and heads hanging from a tree. At that point in the movie, there still might seem like the chance to avenge those brutal deaths. As the movie goes on, though, it becomes clear that there is not going to be any righteous retaliation, at least not in this story. Things just get worse and worse. Someone unfamiliar with the subject matter might be surprised with the change in storyline, but I doubt that anyone in China would fall into that category. There is a reason why the Chinese title of the film is Nanking! Nanking!
The period from late 1937 to early 1938 was the time of what has been called both the Nanjing Massacre and the Rape of Nanking. After five months of intense fighting in a hostile China, Japanese soldiers were thrust into countryâ€™s former capital city subdued it with violence and terror. Thousands upon thousands of Chinese civilians were killed by Japanese soldiers. Thousands of women were raped regardless of whether they were elderly or little girls. There was, allegedly, a decapitation contest. In terms of scale, brutality, and organization, it is one of the most notorious events in the twentieth century. It is a testament to how horrible humanity can be. Almost eighty years later and it is still a point of controversy between China and Japan. Even if Chinaâ€™s claim that over 300,000 were killed is too high, some of the numbers coming out of Japan are ridiculously low. It is not for me to say who is correct and I am not sure that the movie is staking a numerical claim either. Even so, I do feel like apologies from Japan have been either halfhearted or immediately undermined by additional comments. The inability of Japanâ€™s government to properly apologize for the countryâ€™s activities during the first half of the twentieth century have made it difficult to be achieve friendly relations with would-be ally South Korea and to maintain moral high ground in the face of an assertive China.
One thing that I like most about this movie is the tone. There is an overwhelming sense of inevitable doom. It is not overwhelming, but it is always present. It is sad rather than scary or angering. And it is a definite tone, without the need to rely on overt gore or explicit content. Aside from the brief shots of the decapitated heads, the numerous killings are not that graphic. Most likely due to government censorship, the movie does not even include allusions to the decapitation contest. The rape scenes themselves are hard to sit through, but they are not that graphic either; most of the nudity comes from corpses. I have a theory as to why it is more acceptable to show a naked woman after she is already dead, but it is not really relevant. My point here is that the movie shows what it needs to in order to tell the story, but not so much as to overwhelm the story. Sometimes, what we do not see or hear is even worse. Sometimes the quiet and empty moments are more devastating than the ones filled with chaos. To be much more graphic would have been a distraction. This movie is not about the rape and murder, but about the new reality that comes with all of that. It is that reality that casts its shadow over the story, and makes the movie difficult to watch.
This movie is not simply a depressing tearjerker, though I admit to occasionally shedding a tear during the little sequence at the end. What keeps it from being a total downer is the sense of dignity that the characters exude, regardless of circumstance. The Chinese soldiers who desert at the beginning for the film are never seen again, at least not as deserters. The remaining Chinese soldiers and civilians go through the worst, facing death and debasement. A few face it later than others, but they all face it. Even when resistance is no longer an option, there is bravery. It can be loud bravery, or it can be silent and unacknowledged. Whatever may happen to their bodies or even their minds, their souls are pure and proud. They maintain hope in the face of hopelessness. Sometimes that hope is naÃ¯ve; sometimes it is with total clarity. Not all of the main characters find it easy to be brave and hopeful; these are ordinary people, as scared and prone to mistakes as anyone else. Yet, all of them eventually find something within themselves to do what they need to do and to be what they need to be. Throughout the depravity and dehumanization, there is a quiet sense of uplift. In fact, the reason for my tears at the end is not one of sadness, though I should not say why as to not spoil it. It is probably an example of metaphorical manipulation, with the true meaning being some sort of nationalistic propaganda, but I donâ€™t care; it gets me every time.
City of Life and Death was the second highest grossing film in China in 2009. It was not without controversy, however, even in its homeland. The original script and the final cut were each held up for six months by Chinese censors. A decapitation scene and a rape scene were among the material that was apparently cut and not on either the DVD that I had borrowed or the one that I had bought. The director even received death threats for including the character of Kadokawa, whom has been described as sympathetic. Honestly, while I guess that I might sort of understand the sentiment from a virulent nationalist point of view, I am not sure that I get the label of sympathetic. I guess that we can sort of sympathize, but he is hardly shown to be a man of active character. He seems impotent in the face of terror; he doesnâ€™t stop anything or slow down anything. The best that can be said is that he neglects to participate in the worst of atrocities, partly because he falls for a Japanese prostitute, but mostly because he freezes up. The character of Ida, casually cruel as he may be, is much more of an interesting character.
This is hardly the first movie about the Nanking Massacre. There were even two propaganda films about the occupation of Nanking, one by the Japanese government made in 1938, and an American one made by Frank Capra in 1944. There were two Chinese dramatic movies released in 1995 when China and Japan were on friendlier terms, and there had been about nine movies and documentaries about Massacre made between 2000 and 2011, including this one. I had watched four of those other movies to compare with this one. Black Sun: The Nanking Massacre was too blunt for me to get invested. Flowers of War with Christian Bale, on the other hand, was too sensuously sentimental and romantically coy for such severe subject matter. John Rabe (which I actually saw first) and Donâ€™t Cry, Nanking were better than City of Life and Death in terms of character focus, but sometimes I felt that the focus obscured the bigger picture. All in all, I feel like City of Life and Death was the best of the ones that I have seen. It deftly mixes real characters such as Rabe and Vautrin (where is her movie, Hollywood?) with composite or outright fictional characters and makes them seem real. Even when Rabe is â€œspeakingâ€ German as his mouth speaks English, he seems real. Sure, the movie might not really delve deep enough into the lives of any of the characters so that we know what makes them tick. Yet they feel real to me all the same.
City of Life and Death is not a movie about people getting beaten down. It is about people becoming their best when faced with the worst. Many movies like this might have their heroes try to strike back with guns blazing and this movie has a bit of that. What is more common here, though, are the little invisible victories; victories of spirit, if not of deed. Sometimes, that is all that is possible. And, sometimes, that is the most meaningful victory of all. War may be Hell, but some people can manage to be their own salvation. This is not an easy movie to watch, not by a longshot. Yet, it is not as difficult as it may seem. And you might even feel somewhat better after you finish watching it than you did before. Maybe.
Next Time: Musa (South Korea: 2001, approx. 160 minutes).
Time After Next: Roti Kapada aur Makaan (India: 1974, approx. 170 minutes).