As a rule, I avoid war movies. It's not that they're bad, but I find them generally depressing. City of Life and Death slipped into the schedule this year, which depicts the Nanking Massacre of 1937. The exact details, as with so many aspects of war, are cloudy and unknown. It's generally accepted, though, that over a quarter of a million people were slaughtered during the siege on the city. I'm happy to report that the movie does not show that many. That would have made for a very, very long movie.
Shot in black and white, the movie initially shuns plot and characters in favor of establishing the brutality of the invasion with a montage of mass murder. Bit by bit, though, director Chuan Lu reveals a small cast of characters. I've forgotten most of the names and some of the details, because I'm a white American and am easily confused by names other than John, Sally and Ted. Fortunately, between imdb and tiff.net, I was able to piece together most of them.
Part of the story focuses on John Rabe, an altruistic German businessman working for Siemans, AG in Nanking. Rabe is credited with establishing the Nanking Safety Zone, and saving as many as 200,000 civilian lives. He is played by John Paisley, some of whose lines were hilariously (no, not purposefully so) dubbed over, producing that all too famous effect so many Asian movies have on American cable TV stations.
John's assistant is a Chinese man, Mr. Tang, who is under the mistaken impression that he and is family are safe from the Japanese cruelty because he works for Mr. Rabe in the safe zone. This illusion is completely thrown out the window in one devastating scene. Okay, that was a horrible sentence for reasons you can't know unless you watch the movie and I'm already feeling guilty for having written it. But I can't help it. If I had a therapist, he/she would explain that I use humor to deal with the atrocities of war, or some BS like that. Anyway, let it be known that things don't turn out so well for Mr. Tang, but he does at least show some spine by the movie's end.
We also meet Kadokawa, an idealistic and naive Japanese soldier who falls in love with Yuriko, a Japanese "comfort woman", Miss Jiang, a Chinese school teacher who bravely risks her life to save other civilians, and a menacing Chinese soldier who kills many Japanese soldiers, Rambo-style, and eventually saves the life of a young Chinese boy, who the director says is still alive in China today.
Chuan Lu, a self-described "trouble maker" back home, presents a story he believes to be a true representation of the events in Nanking. Though he clearly shows the prevalent cruelty of the Japanese soldiers, he portrays some as naive and others even kind and reflective. This kind of nuance does not likely sit well with the Chinese government, nor will his portrayal of the Japanese cruelty sit well with the Japanese government. But I'm guessing Lu didn't miss the mark by much. My imdb rating: 7/10.