Oh, the humanity… – City of Life and Death

The woman fought with all her might, but against her own will, her strength is nothing compared to that of a trained Japanese soldier. She tried to summon the spirit of nationalism within her, but finds her strength ebbing away with each step. It failed her, it failed her, her nationalism failed her. Her gender failed her, her position failed her, everything she had done…ended in failure. She finds herself trapped, and unable to bring much more to this world, falling further and away into the darkness.

“Kill me!” She found herself screaming. It wasn’t aimed at no one, but to a particular someone, a soldier she had recognised. What did he do for her, what did he do to her, that caused her to recall him, within that moment? There was no one else left, and yet she’s calling out to one of their own. Not hers, theirs. Us against them, forever the conflict that will plague not just Nanking, but the world.


“Kill me!” She shouted at him once again, his startled expression betraying his hesitance at her command. “Kill me! Shoot me now!” She would rather die than face the abyss. Her body would be used for the

Even Muslims weren't spared.

ir pleasure, and that, in itself, is harsher punishment than anything else she could imagine.

She doesn’t want to imagine it.

She saw the soldier approach, overcoming his own fear. What is going through his mind now, as he raised his gun and pointed it at her, she wondered. She doubts whether his superiors would mind so much, since she is a Chinese national, but then again, she is quite an attractive young woman. They wouldn’t want to lose that. The Japs may be cruel and heartless, but they wouldn’t want to fuck a dead body. Lifeless, perhaps. Dead?

She saw his hand shake, and for a moment she thought that he wouldn’t do it. For a moment, she thought that perhaps his own volition would fail him. Perhaps his fellow soldiers would shoot him, knock him over to preserve the prize they had captured. Perhaps…

Only for a moment.

For in the next moment, everything went black.


This is a movie that has several different names. ‘Nanking Nanking’ is the one I would go with, but the version I saw had ‘City of Life and Death’ scrawled along the bottom of the screen. It made for a more attention grabbing title, don’t you think? ‘City of Life and Death’. Amazing title, in fact, for a film that’s so difficult to watch. But it grabs you, clutching your collars, and throws you to the floor. ‘City of Life and Death’. ‘Nanking Nanking’, on the other hand, sounds more like a cry for help. That wouldn’t be inappropriate either, for this film is crying out for people to look and to watch it.

"97...98...100! Ready or not, here we come!"

It is, predictably, a film that looks at the Japanese soldier’s occupation of Nanking during the 2nd Sino-Japanese War. I know not a lot about this war, and truth be told, I don’t know much about that many wars either. I have, however, heard of this particular episode called the Nanking Massacre. Not unlike the movie itself, it also has another name: the Rape of Nanking (perhaps it is appropriate that I somehow started this review by portraying the thoughts of one of the female characters capture; the abuse of women portrayed in this film is absolutely appalling).

In this film, we follow Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi), a young sergeant in the Japanese army taking over Nanking. Throughout the film, we see him interacting with a number of Chinese characters, namely Tang (Fan Wei) and Jiang (Jiang Yiyan). They are assistants to John Rabe (John Paisley), who is the Nazi party member in charge of the Nanking Safety Zone. The zone is a place where many Chinese people sought for safety from the oncoming rush of Japanese soldiers, but the Japanese, believing there to be Chinese soldiers within the zone, repeatedly attempted to barge through, regardless of anyone’s rules and regulations. At least, this is the apparent reason given, for, as we shall see throughout the film, they are also interested in the women for their own comfort. “The men’s morale must be kept high,” said their commander to Tang in one of their more ‘civilised’ moments.

Civilised. It makes you wonder. There is very little civilisation within this film. We are constantly surrounded by violence, and it is this that leads Kadokawa to question himself and the presence of his troops in the region. It doesn’t help that he falls for one of the comfort women, Yuriko. He saw her,

Men. Need. Comfort. Now.

he loved her, and in the moment he had with her as she was there, with her legs splayed open, as all around them all the women cried at being taken by force by the Japanese soldiers, he sat there, quietly. She didn’t recognise him anymore, her mind and spirit broken by the torture her body was put through. Not dead, but lifeless. “You’re done with her, man?” his fellow soldier barged through, looking at Yuriko with delight. “Thanks, man!”

This is not an easy movie to watch. I speak for myself, because I don’t particularly like violent movies such as this. It’s weird, isn’t it? I enjoyed ‘The Marine’, an action film starring a wrestler, and I could even appreciate ‘The Hurt Locker’ in all it’s goriness. But I had a hard time watching this film. I couldn’t help but turn away from the screen as a young child was thrown out of the window by a soldier. No slow-motion ala ‘Antichrist’ here, but nevertheless, it provoked a strong reaction within me. It did the same to many of the others sat within my vicinity, and there’s probably more of those who I didn’t notice. “Those Goddamned Japs…” I heard someone mutter; Koreans, in case you didn’t know, aren’t particularly fond of the Japanese either.

Neither, as it turns out, is this an easy film to watch for the Chinese. Many have apparently protested (though not of the flag-burning variety) at the sympathetic portrayal the lead Japanese soldier is given. On the other hand, neither are the Japanese particularly happy about the portrayal of their actions in the film. It did become a box-office hit.

How could someone so beautiful be so sad? Watch the movie.

The film was filmed in black and white, and it reminded me of Spielberg’s ‘Schindler’s List’. Why must the atrocities of men be committed in black and white? I don’t know. Does it help with our reaction to the film? Perhaps it does, in trying to say that we are all colourless, all of humanity, all from the same seed. We see less of the Japaneseness and the Chineseness of people. We are, in a way, committing fratricide. Did that cross the mind of the director, Chuan Lu? I don’t know, but he strikes me as a young talent worth watching out for. I liked his handling of the characters, allowing each of the major ones to grow some meat on the bone (OK, so meat doesn’t really grow like that, but who cares?). Hell, he even made the John Rabe character into someone we would care about. And he’s a Nazi! How many films have portrayed Nazis in good light? With the exception of Leni Riefenstahl’s ‘Triumph of the Will’, not many, and that’s a propaganda film anyway (whatever the director may say).

In ‘Nanking! Nanking!’. we care for them, we feel for them, and we are constantly hoping that someone, somewhere would stand up to preserve the humanity in this film. It is there, we see it, but there’s always a risk of it being snuffed out by a bullet. It’s not particularly heavy on the music, but the sound design and mix is fantastic; the gun shots, in particular, really resonates with you. Visually, this film has plenty of money shots; one of them is of a soldier walking and standing over a platform, and the camera floats above him, revealing a shot of the sea of dead people. At other moments, we have long shots of people bracing themselves before the final gunshot that will kill them; one, involving two of the major characters near the end, was harrowing.

Harrowing. That’s a good word to describe this, and this is a good film, but it does nothing but remind you of the atrocities we human beings are capable of inflicting on each other.

Fikri was deadened by the end of the film. Deadened, but not dead.

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