Sunday 2 May 2010
Death in the City
City of Life and Death, directed by Lu Chuan, is a remarkable and powerful piece of film-making. It deals with what is perhaps one of the most emotive subjects in Chinese history – the Rape of Nanking.
In December 1937 Nanking, then capital of China, fell to the Japanese, following the outbreak earlier that year of the Sino-Japanese war. In the following weeks the Japanese murdered thousands of prisoners of war and civilians, as well as raping thousands of women, sometimes to death.
The exact number of people caught up in this atrocity has never been established with any precision, though the Chinese authorities estimate it at 300,000, not that much greater than the 260,000 given by the International Military Tribunal of the Far East. In Japan, where the episode is bound up in issues of national pride, the figures have been revised sharply downwards.
Clearly numbers are important, though just as important, if not more so, is an understanding that something dreadful happened in this city not excused by quibbling over figures. The only logical position would to reject the history altogether, as indeed have some on Japan's nationalist fringes, their version of Holocaust denial.
In part the movie offers a kind of perspective on the events, that of Kadokawa, a young sergeant in the Imperial Japanese Army, who is both caught up in the violence and bewildered by it, an altogether admirable performance by Hideo Naikaizumi. It does not in any sense detract from the horror; if anything it heightens it, that these crimes are our crimes, not those of monsters or aliens.
But it’s on this point that the movie has proved most controversial. Shortly after it was released in China in April of last year many were shocked enough by the humanised depiction of a Japanese soldier that calls went out to have it deleted from the history of Chinese cinema. Lu even received a number of death threats on his official blog.
Although City of Life and Death continued to have the support of the authorities, it was not included in the official list of films celebrating the sixtieth anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, or the Chinese version of the British Academy Awards. Even so this stark and honest movie has been praised outside China, recently winning the prize for best movie at the Asian Film Awards. Whether it is ever screened in Japan remains open to question.