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DVD Review

DVD cover

City of Life and Death


Starring: Ye Liu, Yuanyuan Gao and Hideo Nakaizumi
High Fliers Films
RRP: £15.99
Certificate: 15
Available 20 September 2010

In 1937, following a Japanese invasion of the Chinese mainland, the city of Nanking was captured. In the six weeks following its capture, hundreds of thousands were murdered and raped. This real event became known as ‘The Rape of Nanking’...

City of Life and Death (2009 - 2 hr, 10 min, 01 sec) is a historical drama written and directed by Lu Chuan. The film won seven awards and was nominated for a further six.

I had heard of the film before I received the review copy. Most of what I read dwelt on the brutality of the film to the point that you could get the impression that the script is little more than a sequence of disturbing images. In truth the film is so much more.

The story is told from the perspective of a number of characters; chief amongst them is Sergeant Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi) and his senior officer, Ida (Ryu Kohata). Kadokawa slowly becomes disenchanted and then horrified with his part in the Japanese treatment of the Chinese civilians, especially when he develops feelings for one of the women, Yuriko, who has been forced to become a comfort woman for the troops, a form of enforced prostitution.

The film did initially run into some trouble depicting Kadokawa as human, if not exactly humane, as the Chinese audience did not take kindly to this, obviously missing the point that if they had all been portrayed as heartless, murdering soldiers then a lot of the impact of having ordinary people engage in extraordinarily evil acts looses much of its power.

The tale of the civilians is played out through the story of Mr Tang (Wei Fan), a long standing assistant to the Nazi party member, John Rabe (John Paisley). It is an irony of cultural perspective that whereas a European film might find it difficult to sell the idea of a sympathetic Nazi, here Mr Rabe is one of the good guys, setting up the Nanking Safety Zone, where many of the civilians and surviving soldiers flee. This, however, is a fiction of safety as the Imperial Army invades the place to search for soldiers and rape the women. The zone is run by Tang and a young teacher, Miss Jiang (Yuanyuan Gao), who does everything she can to safeguard the civilians. However, when she tries to rescue more than one male from death, she pays for it with her own life.

The story opens with Lu Jianxiong (Ye Liu) leading a last desperate stand against the overwhelming Japanese. Although his fight is destined to fail, one of his young soldiers survives and his story winds through the whole film. Ultimately, he is one of the few survivors of the massacre.

The film is, at times, graphic in its brutality. It’s not so much the overt acts of violence like the rapes or the firing squads, the acts of mindless violence are more disturbing, such as the scene where a young child is casually tossed out a window, falling to its death - the soldiers carry on as if nothing had happened.

The black and white picture is almost faultless, reminding the audience, as Schindler's List had done previously, the beauty and horror that can still be conveyed in monochrome. The disc supplied was the usual check disc with only the film, but looking at the PR blurb it would seem that the final disc will contain no extras at all.

This was a powerful film which will stay with you for a long time with its combination of stunning cinematography, powerful performances and great direction.


Charles Packer

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