City of Life and Death (2009) Poster

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Gripping and intense film depicting terrible deeds during Japonese invasion in Nanjing
ma-cortes14 April 2010
Big budget WWII epic , it happens when China is invaded by Japan at the onset of war and finds Japanese army surrounding city of Nanjing (1937). After that, at the city take place violations, mutilations, and massacres. Some prisoners are interred in a prison camp but later they are led to fire squad, scaffold and alive burying.

Director deglamorizes war showing true horror and terrible events. It's a staggering evocation of the Chinese Holocausto in Nanjing , as the atrocities are depicted matter of factly as by-product of sheer Japanese evil. The opening twenty minutes graphic depiction the facing off is , on its own, magnificent. The film-maker Chuan Lu is nicknamed the Chinese Steven Spielberg for his spectacular and impressive productions. As the moving beginning results to be as stirring as ¨Saving private Ryan¨ , the developing of the movie regarding invasion China is partially similar to ¨Empire of the sun¨ and suffering of Chinese people bear remarkable resemblance to Jews of ¨Schlindler list¨ .The starring, Nakaizumi, and the rest of the cast are excellent , as the movie is powered by splendid performances in charge of Chinese and Japanese actors who during filming suffered some inevitable discussions. Filmed in perfect black and white by cameraman Cao Yu , reflecting appropriately the grim and rotten environment .Lu Chuan makes a breathtaking work which directs spectacularly with groundbreaking scenes in a heartbreaking context.Chuan dedicated about three years joining information and interviewing experts for that scenes would adequate to reality of events. This masterpiece finally garnered the world attention and respect that the story deserves, winning several prizes in various International Festivals.
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Warning: This film hurts
simon-bensasson30 December 2009
I finished watching this film two hours ago and the punch in the stomach I received watching it still hurts. I don't recall having received such a punch in my 60 or so years of film watching. Unlike films such as "Schindler's List" or "Empire of the Sun", this film does not take sides. It's like a candid camera operated by an invisible grand master hidden in the crowd or the rubble. It's just there recording events. As a result, despite the fact that it focuses on the big picture, the individual is not lost: Both the Chinese and the Japanese, each and every one of them, in huge crowds are real believable characters. This gives the viewer a grand and horrible sense of presence which is what makes it so painful. It would take courage to watch it again.
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Amazing piece of cinema, powerful. dramatic, moving
Simonster17 May 2009
Viewed at the Festival de Cannes 2009 (Market screening)

Since I am not Chinese, or of Chinese extraction, City of Life and Death has a different resonance for me. I know of the Nanking massacre (for which, it has to be said, the Japanese have yet to apologise or even properly acknowledge) from my own interest in history, as well as the John Rabe story (the Nazi who helped save thousands of Chinese civilians, until recalled to Germany since Hitler did not wish to upset his Japanese allies).

Therefore, for me, City of Life and Death retells a fearful part of history, but not one with which I have any direct connection. So while this film may resonate a certain way for Chinese viewers, be they from the mainland, Hong Kong or overseas Chinese, I can tell you that I, as a European, have seldom seen a film so powerful, gripping, dramatic and moving.

City of Life and Death is not nationalistic propaganda or a reversioning for the screen: no punches are pulled. The woman next to me was in tears. So be warned, this is not easy viewing. But by featuring on a few characters, allowing them to become fully three-dimensional human beings (not Chinese, not Asian, but human beings who live, love and feel) director Lu Chuan makes his audience feel and share their fear and terror as the Japanese invaders commit atrocity after atrocity on the fallen city's inhabitants. Never forget, this actually happened.

If anything, Lu Chuan soft pedals on the horrors. They are depicted, but are not front and centre. This is not a horror film so gore hounds and ghouls should seek their thrills elsewhere. Rather, it is the arbitrariness with which the Japanese went about their murderous work that scares. Wrong place, wrong time: rape, torture, murder. This wasn't the efficient, methodical murder the Nazis introduced, but rather cold brutality, as a cat toys with a helpless mouse. Unthinking, unreasoning, just because.

Filmed in black and white, City has so many images and scenes that remain fixed in you mind long after the final credits have rolled. Lu Chuan even selects the grain and grading according to the action. The use of colour would, in this case, have weakened the film.

But if City of Life and Death were just two hours of suffering it would be unworthy of an audience. So Lu Chuan gives us the central characters of Mr. Tang (John Rabe's secretary), Miss Jiang (a schoolteacher) and Kadokawa (a sensitive Japanese soldier who witness but cannot delay the unspeakable). All of them are helplessly swept up in the maelstrom, which Lu Chuan leavens with scenes of (attempts at) normal life, normal human interaction and naked attempts at survival. These are people with whom one can identify and empathise.

Yet, at heart, City of Life and Death is extremely uplifting. The message, at the end, is positive and optimistic. In writing this review, the film is coming back to me again. What I once read, black and white on a page, has been made real for me and, yes, I'm emotionally moved by it.

If you believe in the power of film, want a break from popcorn entertainment, are looking for a film that can make you feel (as opposed to having your emotions manipulated) then please go see this one. It's rare when I think a film should be seen, deserves to be seen, but City of Life and Death belong in that very rare category.
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Emotional Ride
yuseric27 April 2009
I'm an overseas Chinese, growing up listening to my grandfather telling the stories about how bad the Japanese Military treating the Chinese people in WWII.

I saw some of the movies made back in the 80's/90's about the rape of Nanking, to me they are exploitation movies and never affected me or leave me with profound experience. I'm actually disgusted with them making such low movies. Also most of the documentaries I watched never really does anything.

I watched Nanjing! Nanjing! - City of Life and Death tonight and it really drained me emotionally, the movie really depicting the real face/real ugly side of war, where the victims are always the people, doesn't matter what wars or which countries.

The movie itself doesn't really do the finger pointing like other movies, but it just showing, in my opinion, the fair view on what was going on back then without taking sides.

And it's show one thing, the most profound thing to me, that The Chinese people can endure a lot of hardship that life throw at them and that's possibly why their cultures and civilization last for a long time.

Highly recommended for people who never really know this part of history, as Chinese I know about it, but for lot of my westerners friends who never been to China, they only heard about it but didn't realize how crazy it was and how significant is this event for the Chinese people. Most people know the atrocities the Nazis did in WWII, but not the Japanese Atrocities.

Watched it and let's pray there won't be WW III or any wars at all actually.
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A Nutshell Review: City of Life and Death
DICK STEEL3 October 2009
The last Rape of Nanking event film I had watched, was the docu-drama Nanking back in 2006 during the Hong Kong International Film Festival. With interviews conducted with real survivors, I was riveted to listen to their account of the atrocities conducted by the Japanese soldiers, and you empathize with them as they relive their memory and make them known. The dramatic elements were nicely presented as well, with notable names reading off memoirs and letters pertaining to individual episodes, which collectively make up the brutal horror, a living hell if you would, of the conditions of occupation.

Lu Chuan of Kekexili fame has crafted this fine film that looks into 2 broad episodes – the first few hours of occupation which will satisfy action junkies, and the later half which looked into the atrocities that were committed some 1 week into occupation, from within an international safety zone set up by Westerners, led by German John Rabe, who gets some concession by virtue of Nazi Germany being Japan's ally.

There's the controversial aspect of the film though, where it doesn't demonize the invading force right away. Instead, I lauded its realistic portrayal of the human condition of Fear when we go into the unknown, and this emotion gets vividly captured in the first few minutes of the movie, setting the tone of the entire film, where fear drives us to do inhumane, barbaric acts. That being said, it doesn't shy away from reenacting the atrocities committed against the Chinese, from bayonet stabbings, mass burials of breathing souls, burning and the machine gunning of surviving soldiers, and rape.

Filled with plenty of characters each given a specific purpose in the film, either representative of an historical legend, or collectively as a group, it makes you feel for the individual with documentary-like precision, and I am somewhat intrigued at how one can feel so much through the simple camera work of going real close to the actor's face, and lingering onwards to capture moments of despair and bewilderment.

If there's one film you should see this year, then don't miss this one. I only hope that it gets played in a decent cinema hall with a great sound system, otherwise it'll do this film no justice. Certainly a contender for one of my films of the year, and comes highly recommended!
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the tragedy of history
georgioskarpouzas5 February 2010
A very fine movie, strong and rather heavy. I was relatively familiar with the events that took place in Nanjing therefore I was not surprised by the atrocities I saw reenacted on the big screen.The device of shooting the film in black and white was effective, in the sense that it created an impression akin to a documentary or a current affairs reportage of the age. Alessandro Ahmenabar may have said that he wanted "Agora" to give the impression that it reported events from 4th century A.D. Alexandria like a CNN live correspondence but I think "The City of Life and Death" was the movie that succeeded on that, giving to the spectator the impression of watching the events in live coverage.

Although it portrayed numerous atrocities, it masterfully avoided the trap of succumbing to "pornography of violence". It also tried to treat the incidences of mass rape and "comfort women", which after all are the reasons that the conquest of Nanking became notorious and was named The Rape of Nanking, in a relatively discreet manner, the only one possible.

The actors were expressive and one must note that this multi-person drama, lacking a protagonist was reminiscent of the technique of the films of Robert Altman also lacking a protagonist.

It was also a good idea to create a positive and repentant Japanese character in order to alleviate the obnoxious impression that the viewer would form about the Japenese people in general.

I do not know whether there is a propaganda value in this movie but judging it a work of art, being not involved in Sino-Japanese affairs, I find it outstanding.
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edward_barett14 December 2010
I've been really impressed by this film. The way it makes a contrast between the fragility of the Chinese position and the vast and enormous military resources at the hands of the Japanese to simply dispose of the Chinese population just the way they want, remorseless and unlimited in their decisions, creates in the spectator a sense of utter despair and impotence, as the starting violence and euphoria transforms into raw and premeditated brutality. But this same perspective makes you appreciate more intensely the triumph of the defeated's mentality over the conquerors' one, the silent resistance that becomes an unified wall against the oppression and ruthless rule of the Japanese military, whom at the end began to fall apart morally. The action is awesomely captured, photography is great, and direction is remarkable, some scenes hit you really hard, but not to the extent to consider it a sadist or heavy-to-watch film. Henceforth, one of my favorites war movies of all time.
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'Death is better then Life'
gradyharp26 June 2011
CITY OF LIFE AND DEATH is a masterpiece - of film making, of finding the midline of response to war from both sides, of cautiously but successfully blending intimate stories with the gory atrocities of war, and of recreating a period of history we too soon forget unless prodded by works such as this. Lu Chuan both wrote and directed this vision of the 1937 decimation of Nanking, the capital of China, by the Japanese that lasted in action for only six weeks but that has been a permanent festering wound on the history of mankind that will always be a reminder to what War is about.

Subtitled NANKING! NANKING! the audience is led to expect a film honoring the Chinese who bravely fought to resist of the Japanese invasion and ultimate destruction of the then capital of China. Instead the writer/director elects to put us in the midst of the war, showing all aspects of how war changes and affects and destroys people. The black and white film is able to create the illusion that we are actually in 1937 Nanking. We meet several important personalities from that time: the Chinese Resistance leader Lu Jianxiong (the inordinately gifted and handsome actor Ye Liu), the Chinese schoolteacher Miss Jiang (Yuanyuan Gao) who fights constantly to save her people, the Nazi German John Rabe (John Paisley) who maintains a Safety Zone to protect the Chinese until the Nazis recall him to avoid insulting their Japanese allies, Rabe's Chinese assistant and translator Mr Tang (Wei Fan) and his wife (Lan Qin) who despite the suffering they endure from the Japanese still are selfless in the choices they make to help their people, and Kadokawa (and impressive Hideo Nakaizumi) who as a Japanese soldier is a symbol for those warriors who are conflicted about the cruelty inflicted on the Chinese. These individuals provide stories with the story that allow the viewer to connect to the human aspect of the victims and the perpetrators of the annihilation we are witnessing. There are devastating scenes of the forced 'comfort houses' created to keep the Japanese soldiers happy, the demanded selection of 100 Chinese women to provide physical gratification to the enemy, the massacre of thousands of citizens - men, women, children - and the destruction of the very city itself. But Lu Chuan balances these with some very tender moments, such as the first sexual encounter of a virgin soldier with a prostitute and how he interprets this experience as love to the point of providing as much gratitude and safety to the prostitute as he can, and the incredibly tender scenes between Lu Jianxiong and a little boy who brings him bullets.

The cast is stunning and while many of us do not recognize the faces, they are obviously some of the cream of the crop of Chinese and Japanese actors. Yu Cao is in charge of the very realistic and photographically perfect cinematography and the musical score by Tony Liu is not only appropriate for the theme of the film but also provides some very simple Western piano music for the intimate scenes. There are multiple choices of subtitles including English. CITY OF LIFE AND DEATH not only documents a piece of martial history that is important to remember, but it is also another way of viewing how WAR can alter the minds and lives of those on both side of the battle. Highly Recommended.

Grady Harp
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Great movie about Nanjing Slaughter
vitaminxu28 April 2009
Warning: Spoilers
I'm a Chinese, I live in Nanjing.

Since i was in primary school, i've watched a lot of movies about the slaughter in Nanjing in 1937. We've been told and taught that 300,000 Chinese were killed in that slaughter, most of them were refugees. We've seen so many cruel photos, read so many articles, and heard the vivid reports of some survivals, which has made 1937's Nanjing a scar on the heart of every Chinese, especially the old ones who witnessed the slaughter, and their descendants.

I don't want to talk too much about the hates between Chinese and Japanese. Why I think "Nanjing! Nanjing! " the greatest movie about this tragedy, is that when LU Chuan shot this movie, he not only put away his hates, but even used an angle of a Japanese soldier, and dared to show the soldier's sympathy and humanity. This movie is logical, rational and together with deep emotion. It's not simply a movie for Chinese people to deepen their hates on Japanese, it's a movie for people all over the world to see, to know, to experience and to explore what Japanese have done to Nanjing in 1937. It's not another traditional movie about Nanjing Slaughter which describes Japanese soldiers as some mentally disordered ones, as demon; it shows that what happened in Nanjing in 1937 was simply a slaughter human done to human. Just because this movie was shot without hates without slants without sharp emotions, it has demonstrated the most powerful thing in the world: truth.

Nanjing, 1937, not matter Japanese admit its existence or not -- we may forgive, but never forget.
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Unflinching, Painful and Without Apologies
OneMinuteFilmReview18 August 2009
It is said that evil can only manifest itself when we do nothing to stop it. When we simply allow for it to happen whether in our lives or in the lives of others. The Japanese soldiers who invaded Nanking justified their horrific acts by claiming pride and duty towards their beloved country. Barbaric and without mercy, these troops of doom descended upon the city like the worst nightmare ever conjured by humans. Imagine an army of serial killers and rapists wreaking havoc without being reined in and you'll get an idea. Kudos and hats off to the director for having the courage to bring this shameful blemish in world history to life. Unflinching, painful and without apologies.
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Powerful chronicle of the 'Rape of Nanking' compromised by view through an anachronistic lens
Turfseer25 May 2011
Warning: Spoilers
Chuan Lu, the talented director of 'City of Life and Death', was faced with a quandary in attempting to recount the "Rape of Nanking", perhaps the single greatest series of atrocities committed by the Japanese occupation force during the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937. Just as the Jewish people always say "never forget" when it comes to remembering the Holocaust, the Chinese people also feel compelled to "never forget" and recall their own Holocaust. But Mr. Lu can't ignore the fact that the Japanese people of 1937 are not the same people of today, and his compulsion to reconcile the past and the present was perhaps his greatest challenge in writing the screenplay.

Ironically, Lu ended up receiving death threats, not from the Japanese but from some Chinese people who felt that he did not extract a sufficient enough "pound of flesh" as compensation for those who suffered during the Occupation. I can recall my own grandparents, who had relatives that were killed in the Holocaust, speak ever so harshly of the Germans and wanted nothing to do with any of them—even those born after the War. Because it was an emotional issue, they ignored the Biblical admonition found in Ezekiel 18:20: "The person who sins will die. The son will not bear the punishment for the father's iniquity". The same can be said for many Chinese people who are unable to forgive the Japanese, even though rationally it makes no sense that those born after the war are blamed for their parents or grandparents' crimes. While Director Lu's reconciliation strategy is a noble one, I'm not completely convinced the way he went about expressing his attitude of 'forgiveness' toward the Japanese, enhanced the story, strengthening its verisimilitude.

Where the film is successful, is in the multitude of indelible images that re-create the horror show that was 1937 Nanking. The images from the film's opening sequence are shattering as they suggest an escalating atmosphere of terror that affected both the Chinese civilian and military population . One image that really sticks in my mind are the Chinese soldiers trying to escape the walled city and are unsuccessfully held back by their commanders. For those soldiers who stayed behind, they're shown to be courageous as they fight back against an overwhelmingly superior force. When they are finally defeated and surrender, the brutal Japanese soldiers take no prisoners. Some are herded into a warehouse with the doors locked shut and then the building is set on fire. Others are marched to the ocean and almost all are machine-gunned to death. Before they're murdered, the soldiers shout "Long live China" and again show their courage against their brutal occupiers.

Worse is what happens to the civilian population, especially the Chinese women. The Japanese force the leaders in the 'Safety Zone' (an area where refugees were supposedly protected by an agreement with international observers) to select 100 women to serve as prostitutes over a period of three weeks for the Japanese soldiers. The women are strapped to beds and are raped continuously through the day and night. Some fail to survive the ordeal and who can forget the scene where the soldiers carry out the nude corpses in a wheelbarrow? The strategies of the Japanese troops recall the sadism of their Nazi counterparts in the book & film, 'Sophies Choice'. You'll recall that Sophie was forced to select one of her children over another by the Nazis. In Nanking, the Japanese play their own little sadistic game—they lead families to believe that their loved ones will be let go—but then order the families to choose only one!

Of all the characters here, Mr. Tang is the most compelling. Tang was John Rabe's interpreter and assistant. When Rabe informs him that he's being recalled back to Germany, Tang makes a pact with the devil by informing the Japanese commanders that there might be Chinese soldiers hiding out in the safety zone; he does this to obtain a safe conduct pass in order to save his family. This admission creates the pretext for the occupiers to violate the agreement and invade the safety zone in order to commit more atrocities. Tang soon learns that the Japanese had no intention of honoring their side of the bargain and a Japanese soldier ends up throwing Tang's daughter out the window. In an act of redemption, Tang trades places with a soldier and remains behind as his wife escapes when she leaves Nanking with John Rabe.

Lu is unsuccessful when he attempts to throw a bone to the Japanese people of today by creating the unconvincing character of Kadokawa. According to Lu, he based Kadokawa's character on diaries he read of Japanese soldiers who were in Nanking during the massacres. Although there may have been a few soldiers who were repulsed by what they saw, the vast majority were more like Ida, Kadokawa's sadistic direct superior. Lu has trouble fleshing out his Kadokawa character—he shows his sensitive side to a Japanese 'comfort girl' who he claims that one day she'll be his wife. And later, Kadokawa shoots Miss Jiang as a mercy killing and then does himself in, as he is unable to cope with his guilt. But it's really not enough—Kadokawa is an anachronistic presence, designed to suggest that Japanese people weren't that bad, even back then. But in 1937, the mindset of the average Japanese person, was decidedly quite fanatical.

What Lu merely needed to do was put a disclaimer at the beginning of the film, noting that Japan transformed itself after the War and that the son should not pay for the iniquity of the father. Without Kadokawa (or perhaps having him as a greatly reduced presence), 'City' would have been much more true to life and there would have been no misunderstanding Lu was blaming the Japanese born after WW II, who bear no responsibility for the bloody scenes that happened so long ago.
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A masterpiece, sadly overlooked
Bambikilled21 April 2013
Warning: Spoilers
** The spoilers contained are not really spoilers, just a very brief mention of a couple of scenes**

As both a history nerd and a war movie freak, I was rather surprised to discover both a part of history, as well as this movie, and realize that I have hardly heard anything about the rape of Nanking, not by a word mentioned in any history lesson nor school literature in Sweden, where I live. I haven't seen many books about it either, during my years of devouring all literature about WWII and wars in conjunction with it. Sad, but it gave me the more reason to learn about the Sino-Japanese wars. This movie, I guess, was the introduction. The mixed reviews were rather confusing but I chose to go with the general trend, that it was see worthy. It was.

Seldom I have been so completely punched down by a Movie, and so utterly engrossed. Everything about this flick just sucks you in, and shakes you up entirely.

The black and white execution can, I guess, be a bit different, for watchers not used to old b&w movies, and definitely pretty unusual nowadays. But as I see it, this is one of the most important features of the movie, giving a raw, documentary, and very authentic feel to it. A very smart move by the director, giving the impression that what you are watching, is a piece of naked at-the-scene history. Still, the visual of the movie never loses it's insanely beautiful and powerful cinematography, with every frame In-Your-Face, smashing you like a fist of master photo.

The actor portraits are strong, convincing and complex, and lets you feel and wonder, rather than just being fed, evolving and revealing more and more as the story unravels. Some critique Nakaizumi Hideo's rendition of Kadokawa, but I don't get it. IMO he does an amazing job, and makes me believe, and feel, him. Often, western viewers, have a hard time getting used to Asian film, which, according to me, has to do with the fact that western and Asian storytelling and dramaturgy traditionally differ a little bit, which of course is completely natural. In many Asian flicks I think the acting and scripts can feel a bit melodramatic for a western viewer. (Not for me though, as a long time fan of Asian film.) In this movie, however, not a trace of that can be detected. The form of this epic piece of film history, is rather the mellow and minimalistic storytelling of old, classic war drama, like for an example, the excellent Finnish "The unknown soldier" (by Edvin Laine, 1955, about another rather unknown part of WWII - the Finnish wars).

The score and sound is also powerful, and adds to the air created, and a couple of scenes are epic, unforgettable, in their perfect harmony of visual, score and emotional strength (the scene with the climb to the top to oversee the field of corpses, and the scene with the ritualistic dance). Scenes that makes one shiver to the core - pure cinematic ecstasy.

The story is simple, yet so dense of emotion and complexity, in it's slow pacing leading to a inevitable climax. Never pointing fingers, never glorifying, never picking sides. Just showing the horror of war, naked and raw, never glutting in blood, misery and atrocity, nonetheless giving a deep impact on the Viewer.

This movie is NOT overrated by the people calling it a genuine masterpiece, because it IS. A powerful, haunting rendition of a horrific piece of history, with believable portrayals of HUMANS rather than sides. Humans affected by, and changed by, war. Beautifully told in it's awfulness.

In a word; fantastic.
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Strong but not great
wirestone-19 May 2009
Unlike Shindler's List or John Rabe, this film focuses not on one particular hero in this kind of atrocities, but the countless ordinary people suffering from the horrors of war. Director Lu did an excellently balanced view, some may say too balanced, from the civilians and the soldiers - Chinese and Japanese alike during the rape of Nanking. The subject matter is profound, the acting is top-notch, the cinematography is excellent, however, the pacing is deliberately slow to match the mood of the film, making me wonder some time how long I had to suffer through. The ending is also a disappointment, when the director tries way too hard to make life the symbol. Still, overall, the movie is good, important and relevant. Watch it.
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Bearing Witness... to the City of Life and Death
dont_b_so_BBC1 June 2009
Warning: Spoilers
There is a harrowing slow-motion sequence in City of Life and Death which encapsulates the experience of this movie for me-- the shot of a few women in an attic looking up as they realize something dreadful is happening outside, followed by a Japanese soldier getting up to inspect his "work" under the open sky. In this movie, the audience is simply (and cruelly) asked to "bear witness" to a Conquest-in-progress-- without (the comfort of) being able to understand or do anything about it. And the basic nature of Conquest is, now as always, "revelling on the ruins of your enemies' civilization" (to paraphrase the director).

So while the film is framed around the "Safety Zone" established (by John Rabe, Minnie Vautrin, etc.) for the first month or so during the conquest of Nanjing(Nanking) in World War II, the establishment & workings of the Safety Zone is hardly the focus of the movie. Which means, unfortunately for gore-hounds and hate-mongers, that the scope of the film is limited when it comes to events happening outside the Safety Zone, e.g. the head-chopping competition reported like a sports series in Japanese newspapers-- but perhaps the Japanese should be the ones making movies about their head-chopping champions.

In other words, this is one of those art-house "war movies" (no, "Schindler's List" doesn't count-- try "La Battaglia di Algeri") which will probably disappoint all kinds of people from action-junkies to history-buffs. And as the movie is filmed in Japanese, English, German and a variety of Chinese dialects, not to mention Mandarin spoken with various accents, only "speed-readers" with an interest in art-house films should give it a try-- as most audiences will be reading/needing subtitles most of the time.

This is because this movie is a self-declared memorial (from the film's opening titles) to the victims of Nanjing, 1937-- filled with broken bodies and minds, but also imbued with a life-loving spirit. It may be roughly divided into 3 sections which I will call (from the invaders' viewpoint) "Shock and Awe", "Rest and Recreation" and "Mission Accomplished"-- or if you prefer, "The Men", "The Women" and "The Future". The movie proceeds chronologically, but there is no real narrative flow to speak of as the audience is put into the shoes of various characters who are not privy to the "big picture". There is also no real dramatic or character development to speak of, since most these characters are just trying to stay sane or alive. And in this way, the movie quietly rises above most genre films (including "war movies")-- because every single frame of it (down to the fictional "end-credits") is pure cinema.

From the realistically "mute" sound-scape barely scored with any music-- coupled with the crystal-clear sounds of "live" shots and explosions... to the realistically "smokey" landscape adjusted to monochrome (it was filmed in full color)-- catching every grain of dust/dirt wandering in and out of focus. Every shot is a window into the blasted hell-scape of Nanking. And with very little opportunity for emoting and "acting", every single cameos (like the Caucasian roles-- would love to see a movie about Minnie Vautrin) are given unforgettably sharp and natural characterizations.

The first half-hour or so of the film presents the invaders in "Shock and Awe" mode, as they systematically "mop up" all the resistance and the men in Nanjing-- giving the audience a chance to take a long, hard look at the faces of the refugees/ prisoners-of-war. However, the main bulk of the film shows the invaders in "Rest and Recreation" mode, having fun like the youths that they are-- even at the expense of the women in the Safety Zone. The film concludes with a short epilogue after the collapse of the Safety Zone, when the invaders take full control and celebrate their "Mission Accomplished"-- but with a symbolic twist at the end shows who really had the last, bitter laugh.

The fact that this film was released in Mainland China, which doesn't have a movie-rating system, may give some the impression that it was made for mainstream or "general" audiences-- but it's probably just that Chinese parents are expected to do a bit more "homework". So apart than sharing my feelings about this film, I would give potential audiences a word or two of advice:

1) Watch the director Lu Chuan's earlier films like "The Mountain Patrol" first to get a taste of his film style/ language-- as his is a kind of neo-realism or cinema verite (completely different from the Danish Dogme films or "Reality TV") designed to immerse the audience in the film environment, rather than to convey any plot or character. To make the most out of a mountain of research, the director has simply chosen a few significant historical events (and created a few fictional "composite" characters for them)-- to make the audience "live through" the winter of 1937 in Nanking.

2) Do a little research on what was happening in 1937, (as well as the Chinese Army's last stand in Shanghai, before they gave up China's then-capital Nanking), to get a historical perspective of what happened before and during the events in film-- with some basic historical background in mind, it will be easier to understand what is being conveyed by each shot or scene-- this film is not a substitute for historical research and the director certainly does not claim to have the last word on Nanjing.




P.S. If you didn't get all of the symbolism in the last scene-- one of them is "Fatman and Little Boy".
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The Japanese sliced babies not just in half but in thirds and fourths.
lastliberal-853-25370828 March 2012
The atrocities committed in Nanking, the capital of China, by the Japanese in 1937 and 1938 during the Second Sino-Japanese War is a source of anger and resentment today.

All kinds of torture were visited upon the residents, including live burials, mutilation, "death by fire", "death by ice", and "death by dogs". A survivor testifies to a killing contest amongst a group of Japanese soldiers to determine who could kill the fastest. The rape that occurred during the massacre was one of the greatest mass rapes in world history. It is estimated that the number of women raped ranged from 20,000 to as many as 80,000, and women from all classes were raped, including Buddhist nuns. Furthermore, rape occurred in all locations and at all hours, and both very young and very old women were raped. Not even pregnant women were spared. It wasn't limited to women as some men were forced to commit incest—fathers to rape their own daughters, brothers their sisters, sons their mothers.

Writer-director Chuan Lu and cinematographer Yu Cao joined to present a film that was stunning and mesmerizing. They say that war is hell, and they were certainly describing what went on here. One does not have to understand a word of Japanese or Chinese to follow what is going on.

The pain was more than evident and the horror is indescribable.
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One of the Best War films
tmyll124 August 2011
As a Historian and big Fan of War motion pictures, and seen quite many of them, I was really surprised of authenticity of this film.

It is really based on historical facts (Please read: Iris Chang: The Rape of Nanking).

The greatness of this film is also on its cast: using both Japanese and Chinese actors. Choice, which was not easy, even as is has been almost 75 years since Massacre of Nanjing happened.

Surprising in this film was also lack of "political message". Film was done in China, but there was no hail of communist party, actually not even mentioned at all. Bravo China!

All those things to put together, this movie is as powerful anti-war as anything can be. Something Mr. Spielberg should watch and compare to his Schindler's List.

As a piece of film art, this Movie belongs to the Top 10 movies made this century.

Highly Recommended! (+18 only!)
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Undiscovered Epic
screenman3 August 2011
Warning: Spoilers
The fact that Japan invaded China during the late 1930's is often eclipsed by the subsequent outbreak of WW2 a couple of years later. What happened during that assault, and particularly what came to be called 'The Rape of Nanking' - China's then capital - was to set the benchmark for Oriental brutality during the Pacific conflicts to come. There has never been an adequate accounting.

This movie is a much-belated and necessary piece of cinema, then. It is also of quite astonishing quality. A Chinese production with an estimated budget of just $12m, it is a tour-de-force.

By all technical standards, it compares extremely favourably with the best of the genre from Hollywood or Europe. Commercial Chinese cinema, like much of Chinese production, is on a steep learning curve in order to catch up to the long-established traditions and skills of the Occident. I wasn't expecting much. It came out of the local supermarket bran-tub. Yet here is a long, intricate and extremely proficient work. One is obliged to make allowance for cultural nuances. Some of the scenes detailing relationships are needlessly maudlin for my (British) tastes, though not particularly worse than Hollywood schmaltz. It is yet far more mature and less melodramatic than the German production of 'Stalingrad'. Shot in B&W, like 'Schindler's List', it instead describes a national holocaust rather than a racial one, and is therefore less inclined towards the moral brow-beating of Spielberg's overlong Oscar junket.

Almost all of the faces are unfamiliar (to me), and this lends the movie a genuine newsreel experience, like the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, or the Cambodian killing-fields.

There's nothing to spoil here. This movie is about exactly what it says on the box - appalling demonic cruelty and mass-murder. It's a missing page of history. But it IS cinema; it's not a documentary. It's harrowing and disagreeable viewing. It's flawed, but it's also highly competent and professional.

Easily a match for 'The Killing Fields' or 'Stalingrad', better than 'Enemy At The Gate', and only a step behind 'Schindler's List'.

Chinese cinema has definitely come of age. Recommended. The 'High-Fliers' DVD has English subtitles.
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Can be better...
LLLC14 June 2009
First, I'm a Chinese. But I think this film is only average in what 2 hrs can deliver. Maybe, I know too much before hand, and expecting more from it.

For people who knows nothing about Nanjing massacre, I still recommend you to see this film. It is an introductory course, and leaves you some unanswered questions after watching it.

To make a good film out of the Nanjing massacre is not difficult. There are lots of stories the director can use. But it just missed. I'd think another documentary "Nan King" is a bit better in terms of content. However, I must say a good thing about this movie is less violent than it can be. If you check out the videos in youtube, you will know.

I'm not a overwhelming patriot, and never have been.I don't need the film to be portrayed from China perspective, so long as it stays with facts and balance view. The were goods & bads in Japanese soldiers, and so were Chinese. Spending too much time to show a Japanese soldier's remorse is a bit boring and out of proportion. He was only a minority. What's in the mind of the majority Japanese soldiers? This is not revealed. (Harmony is the current theme in China. Is this related?)

Some of the plots are unnecessary, too much battle & need. Just like car chase in each standard action movies. Have seen enough of such which did much better. I'd rather to see each main character's individual story.

For example, some of the Japanese women didn't know what job they were going to do in China when recruited from Japan homeland. They thought they could contribute something to their country , but their job were assigned as prostitutes. This could be a good plot, but just missed.

Story of the film is a bit weak. The only touching moment is when recruiting 100 women for Japanese soldiers.

If you are interested in this movie, I'd also recommend you to see "Tokyo Trial".
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Episodic tale of the "Rape of Nanking" is a forceful indictment of all wars and one of the best of 2009
dbborroughs31 May 2009
Warning: Spoilers
The story of the first six months or so of the Rape of Nanking in 1937 and 1938. We begin with the battle for the city, from there we witness the fall of Chinese forces and the Japanese attempts to take the spoils of war. Most of the film is 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 one of the best films of the year.

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. This is a film where every image is a masterpiece. Its a film that should be hung on the wall, even the death and destruction because its so beautiful. and that is kicker, even though the images are so 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 you are moved by the story and the people in the images, by using the medium we have 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 said enough.

Forgive me its hard to describe this episodic film so that it will do it justice. Its 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 Japanese Sargent who isn't happy with all that is going on around him. We see occasionally one of the comfort women the Sargent sees a couple of times. At the start 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.
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Harrowing portrayal of the Rape of Nanking
Leofwine_draca17 September 2012
This grim and depressing black-and-white drama explores the Rape of Nanking and is told from the point of view of the oppressed Chinese trapped within the city (oh, and from the point of view of one of the occupying Japanese soldiers too, purely for balance). As a film, it occupies the same kind of gut-wrenching worthy territory as SCHINDLER'S LIST, depicting a series of increasingly harrowing events in which violence is meted out as a matter of normality.

I always find such films hard to enjoy, and I hardly want to watch them again after sitting through them. Nevertheless, they exist purely to tell their story and to ensure that such pivotal moments in history are never forgotten.

CITY OF LIFE AND DEATH gets everything right: the direction, which emulates a cinema verite style on occasion, is highly effective and the narrative consists of just the right scope. The acting, too, is of a high calibre and the ensuing drama is as gritty and disturbing as you'd expect given the subject matter; there's certainly no sugar coating here.
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A Triumph
YohjiArmstrong13 July 2011
Warning: Spoilers
Plot: The Imperial Japanese capture the Chinese city of Naking in 1937 and proceed to go on an orgy of rape, murder and looting.

Some films hit you in the gut. This is one of them. It's a mini epic, which means that it confines its story to a few blocks rather than the whole city, the budget permitting no more. We start of with the conquest of the city, which provides a few combat scenes for war movie junkies. Swiftly though we're onto the post-battle. First the Japanese slaughter the Chinese POWs. Then they begin looting. If women are found then they are raped. A safe area, under the protection of the Nazi John Rabe and a handful of Europeans, is set up. The Japanese don't want to upset the Europeans so they leave them alone at first until the temptation becomes too much. Then they do the same to the safe zone as they have done everywhere else.

The story is told through both Chinese and (controversially in China) Japanese eyes. Occasionally it threatens to turn into melodrama and during the scenes of the POW slaughter the directer appears to lose control a little, overwhelmed perhaps by the size of the killings. For a good 90% of the film though this is an Asian "Come and See", as the full horrors of total (and racial) war are made clear. The film looks beautiful (especially the Church), the actors play their parts with dignity and compassion and the story is told with a measured care that only serves to make it the more powerful. Don't take your girlfriend but do watch it.

P.S. The final shots are symbolic. Think atomic.
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Stunning, graphic and depply moving.
ihrtfilms24 July 2010
Warning: Spoilers
City Of Life And Death is the story of the Japanese ransacking of the Chinese city of Nanjing during WWII. Known as The Rape of Nanjing, the Japanese were responsible for the rape and torture of thousands of woman and children as well as the murder of an hundreds of thousands of Chinese.

With a storyline such as this, a film will be a hard journey to go on. The film holds nothing back, it reveals the horror, brutality, panic and desperation that is war. Filmed in glorious black and white, the film looks incredible, this along with the recreation of a destroyed Nanjing, it is both meticulously made and brilliantly played out. There are a hand full of main characters and much of the film is seen from the point of view of the Japanese. Yet we also see what life was like for those inside the 'Safe Zone', a mix of Chinese and foreigners. The film is relentless with it's presentation of the horrors: Images of dead bodies scattered in the streets, innocent people shot at point blank range, woman and children rape and assaulted, bodiless heads hanging swaying in the wind. The images and confronting and upsetting. Then there are the scenes of the hundreds of men rounded up and murdered. Some were locked into a large shed and burnt alive, whilst others were simply shot. The image of hundreds of men standing at the shore of a lake, before the inevitable takes place is an image that greatly affected me. As did much of the film. I found it intensely and deeply moving, the idea that humanity can treat each other so very badly is brought home with a punch in this film. The fact that woman would 'volunteer' to be sex slaves to save others is remarkable and dreadful.

Yet through all this horror, there are tiny hints that people tried to retain normailty, children played, women sung, even the Japanese are shown as humans, practicing the dance they latter perform with roaring drums and perfect choreography. The film ends with a note of hope, that some were able to escape the atrocities and perhaps go onto to lead something of a normal life. The film is an history lesson, telling a story that I knew nothing about. It's a hard story to take in, but an important one.

more of my reviews at my site
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Lu's harrowing account of the nastiness imbued within Nanjing's Japanese invasion is a dramatic; stern and honest depiction of a dark hour in twentieth century history.
johnnyboyz3 May 2011
City of Life and Death is the sensational bringing to life of the Japanese's massacre, or "rape" as the film itself states in its promotional material, of the Chinese people based within the Chinese city of Nanjing; a besieging and brutal taking of an urbanised locale quickly reduced to rubble during the Second Sino-Japanese War of 1937 through to said conflict's complications and consequent merging with the Allied Pacific campaign of World War II. Chuan Lu's film doesn't just raise awareness, indeed put across historical events of which few may be aware of outside of The Far East nor indeed lecture on how terrible everything was whilst pining to a western ignorance; in actuality, the film rejects a style more synonymous with 2003's Imaging Argentina or 2007's Goodbye Bafana as films observing darker chapters in human rule, and instead confronts the issue in an engaging, grounded and cinematic manner.

It's worth mentioned at this point that, despite the material, the film looks absolutely stunning; an instance much later on as a militarian Japanese big-wig looks on towards us, slightly off camera, as the stakes that bound those executed moments earlier stand idly behind him, a prisoner still tied to one, strikes us as an individual image worthy of a Pulitzer winning photographic portfolio. The film covers two principal characters, in the early stages Nanjing is yet to fall and we begin on the battlefield outside the city's limits as a young Japanese private named Kadokawa (Nakaizumi) awakens from passing out and sees the first images post-slumber to that of what we see of the film proper. The opening fight sequences between Chinese forces and Imperiast Japense Army troops carry with them highly primal; highly tribal and highly medieval-like characteristics; in that a breaching of a city wall is followed by either band of men standing at opposite ends of a road. They taunt and chant, waving whatever weapons they have, before one charges the other in a manner more resemblant to that of what large clusters of men centuries ago may have done when sword and shield were the instruments of war that they wielded.

As the Japanese close in, pockets of resistance and live Chinese plague the area; the finding of a large cluster on them in a church bringing about the alerting to the proper authorities, whom pounce to the area wielding an air-raid siren which laboriously hums away in that way air-raid sirens do, as if a giant mosquito of some kind; swooping down and in ready to suck the life from those whose blood it is will shortly be spilt. In amidst all of this is a Chinese academic and translator whom works for a local German doing his best to save the Chinese through his place of business doubling up as a makeshift hospital-come-safety zone; the man is a certain Mr. Tang (Fan), a sort of Itzhak Stern to that of the German John Rabe (Paisley), who uses an uneasy alliance Germany supposedly has at this point with Japan to save and offer sanctuary. One of the more intricate exchanges is a sequence in which Rabe's Nazi armband-plus-emblem must be used disparagingly to try and convince a somewhat merciless Japanese official of his authenticity, and that he is indeed in league with the man's nation if it means a chance at saving lives.

The plight of young Kadokawa represents a more moralised representation of the Japanese, at once a trooper there to follow orders; the engaging in shoot outs with pockets of Chinese snipers and resistance and the doing of his job gives way to a burning sense of wrongfulness within the operation. Kadokawa's presence and the generality of his strand offers an oppositional viewpoint from the perspective of what is effectively the enemy; content preventing the film from merely demonising the Japanese nor indeed constructing an anonymous, faceless, machine-like representation of them. Kadokawa's overlying detachment is highlighted during an exchange with a local Chinese prostitute, his inability to properly engage with her for means men essentially frequent her forces the woman into driving proceedings and stands in stark contrast to many-a other Japanese soldiers quite willingly able to commit war rape; a distinction alienating Kadokawa from his peers and suggesting at an alternate mindset, one that is not a rampaging, masked face of evil.

Lu in no way holds back from some of the more sterner content one might expect, bloody wartime violence imbued throughout and barely giving way to anything else; the meticulous attention to the precise Japanese techniques used in liquidising and cleansing the city of those deemed the enemy shown at great lengths, the lengths to which Lu and his production team go in recreating sanctioned off spaces of dirt harbouring the Chinese prisoners penned in by wooded fences and wire quite frightening, as are the finer attentions to details: a long wooded bamboo cane used to cut a disparate pack of would-be inmates into separate clans consisting of those ready to be heaved off for execution and those whom must suffer some other means of fate particularly memorable. The sequences of death and mass destruction carry with them an eerie atmosphere of acceptance, a torch bearer making his way to a fuel drenched building full of prisoners seeing those nearer the boarded up exits wielding resigned looks on their faces. Lu's film hits all the right notes; it is a film that allows its characters to walk, alone, down bombed out and destroyed streets pondering a decision which will have great ramifications. It is a natural film, an honest film; a film willing to have a character confront his captain after having just witnessed him executed a prisoner and enquire as to whether it was necessary – those involved in its production deserve immense praise.
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Issue of Life and Death
emma90061130 April 2009
Warning: Spoilers
I could not talk for a long time when I went home…

I never see a movie about the slaughter in Nanjing in 1937 like this.

Lu Chuan puts away his hates,in this movie ,he don't want to talk about the Historical issues between Chinese and Japanese,he just want to talk about the Issue of Life and Death ,like this movie's Title--City of Life and Death .

"Better dead than alive"Kadokawa said in this movie,so,he killed himself in the one alive in that city in 1937.

We can not Said on behalf of the victims to forgive,We can not forget history,either.

I do not know what kind of emotions with the face of the history of Sino-Japanese,but I know War is the most detestable thing in the world.
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Choice of Life and Death
ryan-w-yu29 May 2009
Although I am always angry on the historical crimes done by Japanese soldiers on Nanjing citizens, I felt not so impressive but calm by this film unlike many others who were totally shocked by the it. What can help me understand the purpose of this film is the title in English - City of Life and Death, which Chuan want to emphasize in his film. The end of the film also highlighted this key point by the suicide of Kadokawa with a question of life or death. Another choice on this question is demonstrated in the film is from Mr. Tang. He left his pregnant wife alone and choose to stay in Nanjing. He choose death because he gave another people the life. And his life will be prolonged by his second child to be born. So every scenario in the film is a choice. Actually many of them are not real choice. At that situation, you have no choice under the weapon of inhuman troops.
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