One need not underline such atrocities as whole swaths of prisoners mowed down by machine guns or women raped en masse or people buried (barely) alive or patients shot in their bandaged heads. A couple carefully chosen, couldn’t-resist moments of swelling music aside, Lu Chuan’s City of Life and Death never underlines. Its subject is the 1937 Nanking Massacre, alternately known as the “Rape of Nanking,” namely the weeks following the taking of the city, then China’s capital, during the Sino-Japanese War, during which the Imperial Japanese Army wiped out hundreds of thousands of prisoners and unarmed civilians and raped tens of thousands of women. It’s a horrifying story, oft-filmed—this was the second Nanking Massacre film released (in its homeland) in 2009 (the other featured Steve Buscemi), and one of six made in the last decade. If its stark B&W calls to mind Schindler’s List, Lu’s film is rarely bombastic and far from self-important. It’s a grueling slog, which is of course a compliment.
Beginning shortly after Nanking has been taken, City of Life and Death moves through the various waves of mutilation. Once the prisoners have been executed, the soldiers, still hungry, proceed further. Eventually, not even the safety zone is safe, against the protestations of Dr. John Rabe (John Paisley), a German businessman and registered Nazi. That one of the good guys is a Nazi speaks to the bizarro world morality depicted in the film, which goes even further by establishing as the closest thing to a protagonist the token sympathetic Japanese soldier (Liu Ye), who’s horrified as his countrymen turn into subhuman monsters who don’t blink an eye before chucking a kid from a window.
The rare war film without an audience surrogate, City nimbly bounces around both sides, hitting up doomed characters: a prostitute (Jiang Yiyan) who becomes one of the hundreds of “comfort women”; an increasingly selfless and brave teacher (Gao Yuanyuan); and Dr. Rabe’s assistant (Fan Wei), who assumes his connection will spare he and his family from the atrocities. Lu, whose previous film was the lean neo-western Kekexili: Mountain Patrol, smoothly and confidently moves about the numerous strands, all while calmly observing the Bosch-like chaos. Further editorializing à la Spielberg would not only be unnecessary but nearly offensive.