Lu Chuan’s City of Life and Death

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Two years after shooting began, Lu Chuan’s (Kekexili, The Missing Gun) $12 million Hong Kong-China co-production, City of Life and Death (南京!南京!),finally opened on the mainland on April 22 and in Hong Kong on May 7. It’s not easy to take on a subject like the Nanjing massacre—Iris Chang’s Rape of Nanking is still widely read, and several movies have explored different views on the subject. Most recently, there is the Sino-German film John Rabe, out in China this month, and the 2007 documentary Nanking, which screened at Sundance.

But Lu still manages to offer something new and valuable in this latest film, which is excellent both cinematically–it’s black-and-white and shot entirely with hand-held cameras—and conceptually—unlike Rabe and Nanking, which focus largely on the handful of foreigners who stayed behind, Lu explores the human conscience by depicting the decisions Japanese/Chinese/Germans, soldiers/civilians, men/women, adults/children had to make during the six weeks of slaughter. City‘s multidimensional portrayal of Japanese soldiers has earned Lu and some of his Japanese cast members both praise and death threats.

The film is refreshingly free of any cheesy love stories or major celebrity distractions. There were early rumors that Lu planned to cast A-list actors like Maggie Cheung, and he has said that talent agencies blocked his attempts to recruit top Japanese actors. The biggest name, Liu Ye (Dark Matter, Curse of the Golden Flower), delivers another classy performance largely with his eyes and facial gestures alone.

Lu provides a taste of the massacre’s horror by showing quick glimpses of organized rape, mass murder and mutilation without making audiences sick to their stomachs (think of the over-the-top torture scenes in Red Sorghum or Clint Eastwood’s recent Changeling).

In interviews, Lu and his cast members have said that they were depressed and could not sleep during filming. “While filming, I even thought about no longer living,” actress Gao Yuanyuan, who played a missionary school teacher, told CCTV. This is extremely disturbing, given that in-depth Nanjing research eventually contributed to Iris Chang’s suicide in 2004. After 72 years, the massacre should not be taking any more lives.

UPDATE: Media Asia says they haven’t scheduled release dates for other markets yet.