Friday, July 16, 2010

City of Life and Death

Chuan Lu (director), made by the state owned China Film Group, 132m, 2009

Not even the Japanese deny the atrocities that took place in Nanking in the winter of 1937. The only debate is about the figures. For a film about the events coming from China, this is surprisingly balanced, and even though what we see is sickening, the realities must have been worse, since there are limits to what the camera may dare, or the human mind absorb. Both the victims and perpetrators are human beings, and history in that sense is a many sided mirror in which we can see ourselves kaleidoscoped. The devilish nature inherent in all human beings is the culprit in etching this inferno which seems right out of Dante.

This is a state sponsored film. It is all the more surprising that some of the Japanese officers are shown in a positive light. It shows the magnanimity and maturity of the film makers not to have painted the events in a monotone of nationalistic hate mongering propaganda. This more than compensates for the simplistic narrative which is justified since the film is obviously one with a high investment targeted at a mass market. The closing sequence of the movie is particularly moving . The truth must lie somewhere between the stubborn denials on the part of sections of the Japanese and the most lurid depictions. The Japanese as a race were no more unmitigated monsters than the Nazi's as the post war reversal shows. Such tragedies have been repeated in many places and merely show how helplessly and easily people can be sucked into committing the unspeakable by seemingly uncontrollable forces in the surroundings. War is a self perpetuating vicious cycle. A current of understatement and effort to understand runs through the film. This I find amazing, something quintessentially Oriental. Imagine a similar thing vis a vis the SS.

The black and white photography is luminescent as the camera roves through the smoking charred remains of the ancient city. The tanks rumble through the avenues. The clatter of marching boots fills the air. The citizens are reduced to wailing, shrieking helplessness. It is awesome to see how effectively we have learnt the art of harnessing human power to wage war and to subjugate others. We are shown how one group of people armed with superior instruments of slaughter united by a common purpose can hold another similar looking group less equipped and less organised in abject thralldom. The science of war is one of the most highly developed branches of know-how. We dignify war with song, dance and ritual. Those proficient in war constitute aristocracies. One of the most scary sequences in the movie is of a Japanese war dance, as the formation of soldiers advances with bizarre movements to the accompaniment of the beats of a giant drum as if to celebrate their victory before the sun god. It seems like a primordial ritual to accompany a blood bath. It is a celebration of naked aggression and the warlike spirit, the philosophy of the sword, the fruit of Japan's lightening westernization and adoption of "modern values". To paraphrase Voltaire, murder becomes laudable if committed in plurality and to the accompaniment of fife and drum. And by the victors.


Nick Duval said...

I definitely want to see this, and I am very eager for its Stateside release.

S M Rana said...

Nanking 2007 is more objective just as Shoah 1985 is the most objective film about the European Holocaust. Resnais' Night and Fog, at half an hour is another fine film which drives home the reality of recent history in a subtle way. This one too has to be seen.

Nick Duval said...

I'll see Nanking and Shoah, the latter I've heard is amazing.

I've seen "Night and Fog," and I thought it was good, but a little brief.

S M Rana said...

I've just completed Shoah, about a minute back. It's short at nine hours. Obviously I saw it in pieces, as I do all films. It's a movie on a vast historical canvas and as authentic as film can get. And an absolute spellbinder. No one should miss this.

Anonymous said...

Another great review, S M. Grace's may be the more thorough, but yours does much with much fewer words.

Worth the wait, Nick, and a film that MUST be seen on a big screen.

S M Rana said...


Thanks. Etheriel has a visceral approach which is is inimitable.