City of Life and Death (Kino International, R)

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The Rape of Nanking is an important subject to learn about, so like many other critics I can’t honestly say that it’s a waste of time to see this movie.

 

 

Lu Chuan’s new film City of Life and Death is something of a critic-proof film. When I say that I mean not that audiences will go see it despite what critics say, but that it’s hard to imagine a critic giving it a bad review, despite that in the end it isn’t a particularly good movie. The reason being that it’s an artfully shot account of a compelling and important true story. Furthermore, it is a story that is relatively little known, at least in America, despite the vastness of atrocity and historical impact it had on the people of China. The story in question is The Rape of Nanking, which has become at least slightly better known in America thanks to Iris Chang’s book The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II.

In case you don’t know what I’m talking about, the very short, very reductive version is that in late 1937 and early 1938 the Japanese army invaded the Chinese city of Nanking. During an eight-week period the Japanese killed hundreds of thousands of unarmed Chinese, often after raping and/or torturing them, or sometimes forcing them into what is basically prostitution. The film City of Life and Death is a dramatization of these events shot in gorgeous black and white and with very high production values, so between the important history lesson and powerful visuals it’s hard to find room to complain about the film.

And yet, as mentioned before, City of Life and Death just isn’t a very strong movie when it comes down to it. The reasons why are fairly typical foibles of subpar movies—bad acting (particularly by John Paisley, who plays German John Rabe who used his power with the Nazi party to make things better for the Chinese), heavy-handedness, over-dramatization, and the beating over the head of the audience with the film’s themes. When it comes down to it even the storytelling is fairly nonsensical—the visuals are typically clear enough that you’ll know what’s happening, but if you were relying on the dialogue or progression of scenes alone you might have some trouble. But in the defense of the film’s original dialogue (Mandarin Chinese), even the subtitles are funky, as they have a strange lack of exclamation points (Japanese characters scream “Banzai.” as opposed to “Banzai!” on more than one occasion) and a tendency to subtitle even dialogue that is in easy-to-understand English.

But, like I said, The Rape of Nanking is an important subject to learn about, so like many other critics I can’t honestly say that it’s a waste of time to see this movie, though perhaps you’d be better served by sticking with Chang’s book, or maybe hoping for a documentary on the subject to come down the pike. | Pete Timmermann

 

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