Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Jun 03, 2011 5:31 pm 
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Lu Chuan dramatizes the horrific Nanking story

This ambitious narrative feature about the "Rape of Nanking" during the Sino-Japanese war (1937), recently released in the US but made three years ago, dramatizes the horrific events chronicled in the 2007 documentary by Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman, Nanking. Lu's film is a mixture. Shooting in faded black and white, he achieves a convincing realism and some originality of approach in epic sequences early in the film where vast numbers of soldiers and citizens are herded together and shot. There is a terrifying sense of meaningless brutality and chaos in these scenes. However they are marred by the introduction of a few characters who are emblematic but unconvincing. And when Lu moves to individual drama to chronicle the dangerous "Safety Zone" set up by foreigners, and focuses on the leading figures in that turbulent and frustrating story, things get clichéd and corny. All in all, City of Life and Death (also known as Nanking! Nanking! or Nanjing! Nanjing!), though it has met with Stateside praise and been a Chinese box office success, remains, overall, an uneven effort.

Though there have been several related films and a Chinese TV series, this is the first full-on feature film that attempts to deal with this event, certainly a blot on Chinese-Japanese relations. The Chinese claim 300,000 were killed. The Japanese admit to half that number; have issued no official apology. Though the film can easily be seen as anti-Japanese propaganda, it deserves credit for maintaining a certain balance and neutrality. Not much can be offered in defense of Japan's behavior in Nanking, but there are sympathetic Japanese characters in the film and melodrama is avoided. But overall the film has two major weaknesses. First is its aforementioned triteness in depicting some key characters and their individual dramas. Second and more comprehensively, the director, overwhelmed perhaps by the unwieldy demands of the historical omnibus chronicle, cannot move on from his sometimes impressive mise-en-scène and forge a unified artistic vision.

The opening scenes (with their impressive sets and large casts) create a strong sense of the ravaged city, of the chaos, and of the hordes of increasingly desperate Chinese soldiers and civilians who rush to escape but are trapped by the Japanese army. Yet arguably the central character, once characters begin to emerge, is not Chinese but a young, conflicted Japanese officer, Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi). He belongs to a unit headed by a ruthless commander, Ida (Ryu Kohata). When Japanese "comfort women" are brought in to satisfy the many Japanese soldiers stuck in the destroyed city, it emerges that Kadokawa is a virgin, and in his extreme naivety he thinks he's in love with Yuriko (Yuko Miyamoto), the "comfort woman" who becomes his first introduction to sex. He carries the image of her around with him in his head, but when he manages to see her again, by which time she has "comforted" dozens or perhaps hundreds of Kadokawa's fellow soldiers, she doesn't remember him or even seem much aware of anything. These passages have something in common with the representation of war in Italian neorealist films, and have also been compared to later central European war films such as Andrzej Wajda's Kanal.

The film must shift from Kadokawa to the Europeans, however, because their story is an important part of the Nanking chronicle -- one detailed more clearly in the Guttentag/Sturman documentary. Here, we have the pathetic, almost comic German leader, John Rabe (John Paisley), who organizes the Safety Zone with a young female teacher (Gao Yuanyuan). Rabe presides over this protected area set up by the foreigners (Germans, Americans, and English) to set them apart as well as to safeguard as many innocent Chinese trapped in the city as possible. Eventually however Rabe is told he himself must depart and return to Germany because protecting the Chinese will undermine the Nazi alliance with the Japanese. This is very bad for the already porous and shaky Safety Zone, which already suffers raids from Japanese who don't respect it, and who believe, not without reason, that Chinese soldiers are also hiding there. Rabe's departure is particularly awful for Rabe's longtime assistant Tang (Fan Wei) and his family, whose "safety" becomes little more than a fragile illusion. Tang's story is sad and shocking: he is forced to watch as his young daughter is thrown out a window to her death by Japanese soldiers. But his status in the film is somewhat ambiguous, because he must partly appear as a toady of the foreigners and a Chinese citizen who seeks special protection the mass of Chinese cannot get. Lu may intentionally allow the corpulent Tang to be a tragicomic figure, and yet allows him his moment of nobility at the end.

At one point the Chinese under Safety Zone protection are forced to yield up a hundred of their females to be "comfort women" for the Japanese, and their fate is gruesome. Another side of the Chinese story is represented by a young general, Lu (Liu Ye), who leads a unit in street-to-street fighting. All these events and sequences are juggled well enough, if without a unifying thread -- other than, perhaps, the cute, feisty little Chinese boy soldier (Xiaodouzi) and his plump, peasanty adult cohort (Zhao), who magically survive repeated firing squads and chases, to walk down a cinematic road to freedom at the film's end. They are pure celluloid caricature, welcome to any popular audience, but tending to destroy the sense of harsh, intractable realism the director achieved at the outset.

©Chris Knipp 2011

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