Tuesday, June 1, 2010

City of Life and Death (2009)

This is a masterpiece of a film. It effects me deeply each time I see it and puts me somewhere past words. With that understanding here is an attempt at spelling out the wonders of this film.

This is the story of the first six months of the Rape of Nanking in 1937 and 1938.
We begin with the battle for the city, from there we witness the rout of Chinese forces and the Japanese attempts to take the spoils of war. After that the film shifts gears yet again to focus on the attempts of the population to simply survive. Its is a heart rending tale about death, the destruction and rebirth of the human spirit and of life. Its is a deeply moving episodic tale and was one of the best films of the year 2009.

Where do I begin? Perhaps with the beautiful black and white photography that paints a haunting picture of life and death. Color is wildly over rated and the simple black and white images allow so much more to be said. Color would simply have gotten away. Color would have made it all less real. This is a film where every image is a masterpiece. Its a film that should be hung on the wall, even the images of death and destruction because its so beautiful. But even though the images are beautiful they are deeply deeply troubling. We are moved even though somethings are too pretty, or perhaps because they are. The director and his crew are clearly aware they are making a movie, watch the drum ritual in the last part of the movie, there is no doubt that this is a movie and yet you are moved by the images. No, that's wrong, you are moved by the story and the people in the images. The filmmakers by using the medium we have managed to make a film that is in some ways more real then a straight documentary would have been.

The film often takes the form of a documentary.. The camera seems to capturing events as they happen. The 40 minute battle for the city that opens the film is shot in such away that one could believe it was "real". There is no music, only the battle for the city. The sequences of the rapes, of time with the comfort women and many of the atrocities and deaths are filmed as if we are there witnessing the terrible events, few cut aways, no swelling music for effect, just the horror before us. It is stark an indictment of not only the events that happened 70 years ago, but also an indictment of all wars. "If you go to war these things will happen" it seems to be saying with images that mirror recent conflicts. It is a message that can not be apoken enough.

Forgive me its hard to describe this episodic film in a way that will do it justice. It's told in connected parts that are separated by letters and post cards from inside the city. We follow several characters, the Chinese secretary of John Rabe, a German citizen trapped in the city who was in charge of the international zone which was turned into a "safe haven". We see his family and those around them.There is one of the women on the board of refugees. We follow a Japanese sargent who isn't happy with all that is going on around him. We see occasionally one of the comfort women the sargent visits a couple of times. At the start we follow a soldier fighting the Chinese, and his side kick a young boy. There are other flashes of characters who come and go and fill in the mosaic of the tale. Its not the entire story, or anyone persons story, its the tale of the city and what happened.

I liked that everyone is seen in various lights. We have a Japanese soldier with doubts to be sure, but he's not the only one. We see hesitation in many of the Japanese. This isn't to say they aren't bad, they are, but they are shown to be more than just monsters. It makes the horrors that transpire all that more troubling. And we see some less than brilliant moves on the part of some of the Chinese, moves that they hoped would work in their favor and instead ended up working against them.

This is a deeply moving, deeply disturbing film. Its as anti-war as you can get. There is great horror, from the normal horrors of war, to numerous and frequent graphic rapes, nastiness involving children and pretty much every kind of cruelty you can think of. A sequence where the women in the international zone are brought into a church and told that one hundred of them must go with the Japanese to be comfort women is has harrowing as sequence in any film since the women know that they are going off to a fate worse then death. And yet there is weird kind of hope in the sequence (and in the film). By some women choosing to go they bought time for the other women. From death, life.

The film is filled with many sequences where from death some life comes. From some darkness there is light. As bleak and hopeless as things appear, there is often some ray of hope among the darkness. Indeed as the film makes clear the war ended, the Japanese left and China and humanity survived. From death, life.

Words of description are futile, just as any mention of the films flaws is.

All I can say that really counts is see this film. See this and prepared to be moved.

Currently on DVD outside the US, its making the rounds of film festivals around the country.

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