Directed by Lu Chuan in 2009, City Of Life And Death is a film that will understandably get a lot of comparisons to Schindler's List not just because it's a black and white film but because it deals with an historical atrocity that those on the receiving end want to make sure does not get forgotten about in the annals of history. The subject? The infamous Nanking Massacre which took place in 1937 and which saw roughly three hundred thousand Chinese citizens killed at the hands of the occupying Japanese forces.
The film begins by immediately placing the viewer heart and center in the beginning stages of the conflict. We see firefights from both the Japanese perspective and the point of view of the pockets of Chinese soldiers still left alive, the latter group taking out as many of their enemies as they can but eventually falling. The Japanese quite simply had them outgunned. It would be bad enough if the firefights and the devastation of the city's architecture were all that happened, but once the city was under Japanese control, the occupying forces laid waste to thousands upon thousands of Chinese citizens, solider and civilian alike. Men were rounded up in pens and executed in front of their friends and family, families were buried alive, scores of people were wrangled up and literally just mowed down by machine guns while others were bayoneted and left to die in the river. Women were rounded up and used as prostitutes for the pleasure of the Japanese forces and bodies were not only left in the streets but hung from electrical poles, severed heads hanging from telephone wires.
The film leaves nothing to the imagination in its depiction of these events and the first forty minutes or so really just focuses on the atrocity exhibition. From here, the film does eventually focus on a few key players, the first of whom is a Nazi named John Rabe (John Paisley) who winds up setting up a safety zone in the middle of the city where the Japanese forces are not supposed to go. Initially this allows the Chinese some reprieve, though eventually Rabe's secretary, Mr. Tang (Fan Wei), tells the Japanese that wounded Chinese soldiers are being hidden in the area, at which point the Japanese ignore the rules Rabe has set up. One of these Japanese soldiers is Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi) who winds up sympathizing with the Chinese and falling in love with a comfort woman. After he loses his virginity to her he gives her New Years gifts like sake and candy. As organizers are trying to encourage the Chinese women to cut their hair and make themselves less attractive to the Japanese soldiers, one woman, Xiaojiang (Jiang Yiyin), refuses, stating that she'll need her looks to earn a living after the war. When the Japanese insist that one hundred Chinese women offer themselves up as prostitutes, she's the first to volunteer.
So masterfully does Lu Chuan weave these very human stories into the ongoing atrocity exhibition that continues throughout the movie that the film winds up both a document of the horrors of this particular segment of war and a look at the human side of the conflict. While Lu Chuan's decision to not completely demonize the Kadokawa character brought him under some scrutiny with the Chinese government (who are quick to censor many things we westerners take for granted), it does manage to make us think more than we would otherwise about why people do what they do in situations like this. The film definitely slants things to the Chinese audience it was geared for, as it should as they were the victims here, but Kadokawa provides depth and emotional weight in the film where, had he been played as straight evil, it would otherwise be lacking.
Performances are very strong across the board with all involved obviously quite committed to their respective roles. This would likely have been some pretty challenging material to work on as a performer but Chuan gets very good work out of his cast. So too does he get equally impressive results from his crew, as the film's attention to detail is as excellent as its scope is impressive. The scenes of war shot for this movie are horrifyingly intense, but the cinematography, despite the fact that it captures humanity at its worse, is always amazing. The black and white color scheme works well here, had it been released in color (it was shot in color and changed to black and white in post production) things may have seemed overly excessive. The film has enough impact as it is without having to go that route, while the high contrast images somehow seem more appropriate in the context of the story being told.
The 2.20.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer for City Of Life And Death is excellent. The black and white image shows great contrast and surprisingly strong detail, making this one of the nicest looking standard definition presentations that this reviewer has seen in some time. Black levels are nice and strong, there are no problems with compression artifacts or edge enhancement, and outside of some very minor crush in a couple of darker scenes, there's nothing to complain about here. Print damage is never an issue, the image is sharp, clean and detailed from start to finish, and all in all things look great.
Even more impressive is the Chinese language Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound track, with optional English subtitles. The combat scenes are incredibly layered here, with bullets whizzing past you from every direction and explosions really rumbling at you out of your subwoofer with plenty of power. Dialogue stays clean, the levels are always well balanced, and there are no problems at all with any hiss or distortion. The English subtitles are clean looking and easy to read and free of any typographical errors. This mix is about as good as a lossy track gets - reference quality stuff here.
Extras on the first disc are limited to a trailer for the feature and a few unrelated Kino Lorber properties, a still gallery, menus, and chapter selection. This is, however, a two-disc set, and one that second disc is a featurette running almost two hours which documents the making of this epic film. Entitled Matters Of Life And Death it features some lengthy and refreshingly honest interviews with director Lu Chuan as well as with the producers and some of the cast members. There's a load of behind the scenes footage here, showing how a few of the more memorable scenes were shot and choreographed, while the interviews provide some context as to problems that occurred during the shoot, cultural issues surrounding the film, and the frequently dire shooting conditions under which long stretches of this production took place. This is a bit longer than it probably needs to be, but it goes very in-depth and if it's a bit rough around the edges from a technical stand point, it more than makes up for that with a lot of great information.
City Of Life And Death is a film as intense and as gripping as it is emotionally horrifying. An incredibly well made film, it's a powerful look back at a part of history that a lot of western audiences don't know very much about but which would nevertheless go on to have a huge impact on eastern culture. The film is amazing on a visual level and the performances in contains just as strong - Kino Lorber's DVD looks and sounds great and while there's really only one extra, it's hard to complain about it when it does in-depth as it does. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.