The New York Times reviews “City of Life and Death”, a new movie by Lu Chuan which presents a fictionalized telling of the Nanjing Massacre:
History weighs hard and steady on “City of Life and Death” without encumbering it. Mr. Lu provides little background and context for the massacre, which occurred nearly half a year after the start of the second Sino-Japanese war (1937), doubtless because his Chinese audience needed no such instruction. Instead, after briefly setting the scene through a series of handwritten postcards, he opens with Japanese troops breaching the monumental wall that once circled Nanjing. Restlessly and with increasingly clear narrative purpose, he begins cutting between the Chinese surging to escape and the advancing Japanese soldiers who refuse to let them pass, a tactic that sets the film’s insistent contrasts — the immense and the intimate, the mass and the individual, the cruelties and the kindnesses — immediately into dynamic, dramatic play.
Mr. Lu’s last film was “Mountain Patrol: Kekexili,” a surprisingly tense fictionalization of the attempts to stem the illegal trade in the Tibetan antelope, or chiru, which has been driven to near extinction because of consumer lust for its wool (shahtoosh). He is an extraordinary visual artist and here, working in wide screen and shooting in black and white, he singles out specific images — dead and naked prostitutes stacked in a cart like wood, a sole dead woman tossed in a ditch — that encapsulate a multitude of horrors. Watching this film, you are reminded of how much needless explaining characters do in American cinema.
Watch a trailer for the film: