Just the tip of the iceberg as far as atrocities go in this film.

Theatrical Release Date: 06/24/2011
Director: Lu Chuan
Cast: Liu Ye, Gao Yuanyuan, Hideo Nakaizumi, Fan Wei, Jiang Yiyan, Ryu Kohata, Liu Bin, John Paisley, Beverly Peckous, Qin Lan
Rated: Being released in America Unrated so as to avoid potentially strict MPAA rating due to wartime violence and atrocities including sexual assault, and for some sexuality and brief nudity.
Runtime: 2 hours, 13 minutes


There are two names most commonly used for the Japanese occupation of Nanking, China in 1937: The Nanking Massacre and the Rape of Nanking. Neither give the impression that what happened inside the city walls was anything close to humane – nor should they, as tens of thousands of women (of all ages) were raped, and hundreds of thousands of civilians and captured soldiers were killed.

Writer/director Lu Chuan presents a harrowing look at those events in his film, “City of Life and Death”. It’s told via the perspective of four people: Lu Jianxiong (Liu Ye), a Chinese soldier who refused to flee the city when its fall was imminent; Mr. Tang (Fan Wei), an aide to John Rabe, the German Nazi party member who organized a safety zone inside Nanking after it had fallen; Miss Jiang (Gao Yuanyuan), a teacher inside the safety zone; and a Japanese soldier, Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi), who struggles with being a part of the invading force committing heinous acts on defenseless civilians.

The film is shot in black and white and shown in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, allowing for gorgeous panoramic scenes. Cinematographer Cao Yu, working with Chuan, presents a stunningly beautiful picture, further emphasizing the horrific events on display.

The first 45 minutes, in particular, include some of the finest war-related filmmaking to date – as this section concerns the siege on Nanking leading to the Japanese occupation. The level of coordination alone is something to behold, with every department (stunts, costumes, production design, etc.) working in unison and creating a stunning depiction of the Chinese defeat inside the city walls, as well as how they were rounded up and executed.

All of the actors deliver solid performances, most notably Wei as Mr. Tang, whose faith in John Rabe leads to some of the film’s most heart wrenching scenes. Though of course, the tricky thing about films depicting real events that are so emotionally charged is how much of them are hard fact, and how much is the perspective of its filmmakers.

The big problem with this film in particular is the attempt to portray Kadokawa’s struggle with the actions of the Japanese army inside Nanking’s walls. As with any war, one cannot expect every soldier to agree with every practice and policy of their superiors or their comrades. However, when presenting a film that depicts the highest levels of human depravity, giving the audience one soldier who shows remorse and feels bad about how the Japanese conduct themselves, while he still goes along with it, simply feels hollow. Even his late attempts at redemption and supposed feelings for a Japanese “comfort woman” do little to belie the misogyny and cruelty shown by him and his fellow soldiers.

Of course, for those who are more interested in something that should be more about fact than drama, reading books on the subject or looking for a documentary may be the more prudent thing. In 2007, a documentary called “Nanking” was given limited release in the states and the trailer is embedded below. I haven’t seen it, and using Hollywood actors to read letters sent during the occupation of Nanking seems like an over-handed mess, but the film did receive largely positive critical reaction and was among the final 15 documentaries the Oscars considered in 2007.

Whether or not the inclusion of actors mugging towards the camera in the documentary would be any more distracting than Lu’s attempt to balance the perspective in his film is up to you. However, in watching “City of Life and Death”, the events that befell Nanking and its citizens make a profound impact. The film is beautifully shot and it relates an important chapter in human history. Obviously, this isn’t something for younger audiences and it’s not light, fluffy entertainment. But if you’re unfamiliar with the atrocities that occurred within the city walls over the course of the Japanese occupation, this does provide a good starting point to then continue your education on the matter and it gets a 3.5 out of 5.

3.5 out of 5