Review: “Nanjing! Nanjing!” or “The City of Life and Death” (2010)
WARNING: 100,000-300,000 SPOILERS
Lu Chuan’s “Nanjing! Nanjing!” (international title: “City of Life and Death”) is to the Rape of Nanjing what Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” is to the Holocaust: a beautifully photographed, black-and-white epic about an unspeakable horror, with a leading, sympathetic role for a man on the side committing the atrocities.
Comparing a movie to “Schindler’s List” is generally a compliment but not here. Like “Schindler’s,” “Nanjing!” also reduces the unfathomable to the understandable. It allows itself melodrama. It tries to draw emotion out of us, all of us sitting in our safe theater seats, by showing us tragedy that can be comprehended (one baby tossed out a window) rather than horror that can’t (dozens of babies skewered on bayonets). It milks scenes for emotion when, given actual events, we should be drained of it.
When I lived in Taiwan 20 years ago I wondered why the Rape of Nanjing wasn’t better known in the West. Iris Chang, in her book, “The Rape of Nanking,” calls it “the forgotten holocaust of World War II,” and that seems accurate. It’s forgotten, or glossed over, by everyone but the Chinese, on whom it was perpetrated, and the Japanese, who were the perpetrators, and some of whom deny it happened. So it goes with unspeakable horrors.
The movie begins in December 1937 with the Japanese Army, which had already taken over Manchuria in 1931, and which invaded China proper in July, on the outskirts of the then-capital, Nanjing, a walled city. China had been a divided country since the revolution of 1911, and we see some of this division within Nanjing, as the majority of the Chinese Army, probably Kuomintang, attempt to flee, while a few hardy resisters, led by Lu Jianxiong (Ye Liu), engage in a kind of giant scrum to hold them back. They are unsuccessful. Most of the first hour of the movie deals with the heroic resistance of these last remnants, with a small child, Xiaodouzi (Bin Liu), constantly looking up to and emulating Jianxiong. Then, after surrender, all of these are systematically slaughtered.
The Mayor of Nanking fled on December 7 (always an infamous date), and the government, such as it was, switched into the hands of an international committee, led by German businessman and Nazi party member John Rabe (John Paisley), who established a “safety zone,” where the Japanese were nominally circumscribed as to who they could rape and kill.
What was it like? A foreign missionary, Rev. James M. McCallum, wrote the following in his diary:
I know not where to begin nor to end. Never I have heard or read such brutality. Rape! Rape! Rape! We estimate at least 1,000 cases a night, and many by day. In case of resistance or anything that seems like disapproval, there is a bayonet stab or a bullet ... People are hysterical ... Women are being carried off every morning, afternoon and evening. The whole Japanese army seems to be free to go and come as it pleases, and to do whatever it pleases.
How many Shanghai citizens were murdered? One hundred thousand? Three hundred thousand? How many women were raped? Twenty thousand? Eighty thousand? The numbers are staggering but they are only numbers, so Lu Chuan spotlights a few people to care about.
There’s Mr. Tang (Wei Fan), assistant to John Rabe, who, in the beginning, when his wife (Lan Qin) asks if Nanking is safe, replies, “I work for the Germans. We are safe.” One awaits for his rude awakening. One doesn’t wait long.
There’s Miss Jiang (Gao Yuanyuan), a pretty administrator, who also works inside the Safety Zone. Who is she? Who knows? She’s mostly pretty, and generically heroic, but of course both qualities work against her here.
Then there’s Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi), the Japanese soldier who opens the film by waking up and shielding his eyes from the rising sun. Metaphor alert. His path, during the course of the film, will take him to a point where he can no longer shield his eyes from the Rising Sun and its atrocities.
Kadokawa is, like Oskar Schindler before him, both the enemy and the most finely drawn character of the bunch. There’s a not-bad, early scene with a Japanese “comfort woman,” with whom he has his first sexual encounter. He comes away thinking it means something, that she has feelings for him—even as another man takes his place—but a later scene reveals that she doesn’t even remember him. It would be slightly sad under normal circumstances but these are not normal circumstances. And yet it’s still sad. How does that work? I think, like Kadokawa, we want a touch of the humane amidst all this inhumanity. Like Kadokawa, we don’t get it.
I cared not a bit for Mr. Tang. Every move he makes is wrong. He rushes home to cut off the hair of his wife and daughter but it doesn’t help. He attempts to negotiate with the Japanese but they dismiss him. He attempts to bribe them with money and information, including the whereabouts of two Chinese soldiers in the Safe Zone, but he only gives the Japanese an excuse to enter the Safe Zone, where his wife/daughter are nearly raped, and where his baby is tossed out the window by a Japanese soldier. The camera holds on his stricken face for an eternity. I thought of “Sophie’s Choice"—that scene after the choice is made and the camera holds on Sophie's face, and she goes from horror to an even deeper horror, to a lifelong horror; and while I know it’s unfair to compare another actor with Meryl Streep (it’s like comparing another songwriter to Dylan or another novelist to Joyce), we get nothing close to that here. Tang starts out stricken and ends stricken. And the camera holding on him so long merely makes us aware that the camera is holding on him for so long.
Eventually a release is negotiated for Tang and his wife, along with a third man, and the three make their way to the exit gate, where John Rabe and a car wait on the other side of a 60-foot no-man’s land. But Ida (Ryu Kohata), the subtly sadistic Japanese commander, after a reference to Tang’s wife’s beauty, tosses in a wrinkle. Only two can leave. Ultimately the third man has to stay behind and Tang and his wife walk slowly across the no-man’s land. But halfway, Tang stops. His conscience won’t allow him to go on. He tells his wife this. She looks confused. He says he’s going back to look for May, her sister, who we know (and probably he knows) is dead, but he says this for his wife’s benefit. He knows he’s going back to an execution. Tang's gesture is supposed to be a grand gesture but it feels empty. His responsibility should be to his wife, and to the baby inside her, but instead it’s to...what? A sacrifice for this third man? A general sacrifice for the Chinese, whom Tang betrayed? Worse, when he makes his way back, his wife follows and pleads with him through the barb wire fence; and all the while, knowing Ida could change his mind on a whim, my mind screamed, “SOMEONE GET THAT UNRAPED WOMAN OUT OF HERE!!!” Then Tang is executed grandly—tied to a post, in ready-aim-fire fashion, with Ida, facing away, in the foreground—when a quick death, in which Tang is treated like the dog the Japanese saw him to be, would've been more effective. Not to mention more realistic.
The movie keeps doing this. Making grand what isn’t. Milking what has no milk. Making the naturally dramatic melodramatic.
Is there a smart Chinese character here? A heroic one after Lu Jianxiong? Near the end, the Japanese are loading men onto a truck to cart them off and kill them, but, for some reason, Ida allows each Safe Zone citizen to take one man off the truck to save them. Miss Jiang, still un-raped, still with her perfect hair, chooses Xiaodouzi, the boy who looked up to Lu Jianxiong in the beginning, and who survived the slaughter of the Chinese Army. But he survived with another man, a fat man, who begins to cry out for Miss Jiang to save him, too. He won’t shut up. He keeps saying her name, and drawing attention to himself, and to her, and in the audience I kept thinking, “Shut up. You’re a soldier, and a man, and you’re getting this woman into trouble to save your own fat ass.” Sure enough, she comes back for him. And sure enough, she’s targeted. Ida gives her the once over. He tells her Mr. Rabe can’t save her now. He says “Our people will be pleased.” Then she’s led away to become a comfort woman, to be, in essence, fucked to death. “Shoot me,” she says to a Japanese soldier. Luckily it’s our Japanese soldier, Kadokawa, and the camera cuts to his point-of-view. He’s just standing there. Then slowly he begins to move. Faster and faster. Up to the two soldiers leading Miss Jiang away. Will he or won't he? I suppose it’s something that writer/director Lu Chuan actually has us rooting for the death of a sympathetic character like Miss Jiang, but it still feels like the scene goes on too long.
As for Fatty? He and the boy get away. Kadokawa takes them outside the city to kill them but instead lets them go. “Life is more difficult than death,” he says, then chooses death for himself. Before the final credits, we find out what happened to all of the historical figures, how long they lived, etc., and for the child, Xiaodouzi, who may or may not be a historical figure, we’re told, “Xiaodouzi is still alive.” It’s a great moment, a “Fuck you” to the Japanese, but the earlier, getting-away scene doesn’t work. Kadokawa lets them go and he and Fatty smile before they even reach the woods. They smile too quickly given everything they’ve been through, how much they have to carry inside them, how cheap they now know life is. They smile as if they’re safe, when they should know, more than anyone, that there is no safe.