(Chuan Lu; China; 2009)
Clearly a film that depicts the massacre of 300,00 Chinese people by the invading Japanese army in Nanking in 1937 is going to be heavy work, and considering the utter gravity of this brutal moment in 20th century history, it is to Lu Chuan's credit that City Of Life and Death carves a harrowing and horrific furrow for 135 minutes. There is no room for sweetening the experience with saccharine or heroism, but the relentless and epic depiction of the horrors of Nanking make for demanding but astonishing viewing.
By not having an outright protagonist in the film, but instead having a handful of key characters that we return to over and again, allows the film to circumnavigate its brutal exposition with an observational and semi-objective eye. The film mixes small-scale with large-scale, connecting personal dramas to the larger tragic schema – shots zero in on individuals faces reacting to the horror of their predicament or the minutiae of the event, then sweep out to take in the plight of hundreds and hundreds of people. It is the epic scale of these latter shots that really have punch – a church full of hundreds of Chinese all raising their hands in surrender, a swathe of deserting troops trampling civilians to get out of the city, hundreds of captured soldiers being gunned down in one large-scale execution.
The point of view is not solely from the Chinese, as the film focuses on a couple of Japanese characters who observe and participate in the atrocities, but ultimately the film shows killer and prey as part of a universal intertwined whole.