Wednesday 4 July 2012


(Lu Chuan, 2009) In his 1961 review of Gillo Pontecorvo's Holocaust drama Kapo, then critic (now much-lauded Director) Jacques Rivette did not summarise the plot or give a close reading of the aesthetics except to describe one scene and more specifically one shot: "Look however in Kapo, the shot where Riva commits suicide by throwing herself on electric barbwire: the man who decides at this moment to make a forward tracking shot to reframe the dead body – carefully positioning the raised hand in the corner of the final framing – this man is worthy of the most profound contempt." Lu Chuan's City of Life & Death made me think of Rivette's criticism, which is raised whenever a Holocaust film or any film about real-life instances of man's inhumanity to man is released. This film is a somewhat impressionistic portrayal of the rape of Nanking, one of the great war crimes of the Second World War and a source of continued tension between China and Japan to this day. The first half is an elliptical, almost dreamlike, floating account of the Japanese conquest of the city, full of ferocious battle sequences and unwatchable mass murder. The second half shows the way the Japanese ran the conquered, half-destroyed city: by executing hundreds of civilians, sytematically raping women and throwing children out of windows. It is often difficult to watch so much unending brutality, and this is where Rivette's criticism is relevant, for Chuan's film is also incredibly beautiful. The sumptuous black and white photography summons up a series of indelible, unforgettable images: small boys playing war with abandon in the ruins, surrounded by corpses, mere seconds after the firefight they just participated in has ended; a chapel full of keening, terrified refugees shrinking from a handful of Japanese soldiers ; the tips of executed mens heads above the sand as their executioners dance around them, flattening the grave. Chuan is a new sort of Chinese filmmaker, combining the depth and artistry of the 5th generation with the technical mastery of a modern Hollywood director, and his approach here is radical. He does not linger too long on any one character, his narrative always moving along, observing all, context developing as the story progresses. And yet he is even-handed - the film has been massively controversial in China due to the humanity it allows its Japanese characters. I can't agree with that criticism or with Rivette. This is a profound, magnificent , difficult film.

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