Thursday, September 26, 2013

City of Life and Death: 2 Disc Special Edition (2011)

City of Life and Death: 2 Disc Special EditionAs far as definitions for Hell on Earth go, the assault on the Chinese city of Nanking by the invading Japanese army in 1937 is certainly on a par with the horrors of the worst of the Nazi concentration camps. Ruthlessly and systematically wiping out of the Chinese army soldiers defending the town, the abuse, torture and mass execution of citizens and the notorious rape and murder of the city's women engaged as "comfort women" for the Japanese troops is one of the darkest moments in the history of modern war crimes.

It's a harrowing subject with material of such a degree of obscenity that, despite it being a popular subject for film with several documentary attempts and another film about John Rabe released around the same time as this one, it's a difficult one to approach within the limits of what a conventional war movie can show. Appropriately then, Lu Chuan adopts a style and approach similar to Steven Spielberg in Schindler's List, shooting in eye-catching widescreen black-and-white, taking in multiple viewpoints that chart the complete breakdown of any recognisable human qualities into barbarism on an unimaginable scale. Initially, there's the view from the Chinese soldiers defending the city, as well as the view from a young Japanese officer Kadokawa. The city taken, the view switches to the "Safe Zone" (which in reality is far from safe at all) established by the Nazi representative in the town John Rabe, seen mainly from the perspective of his Chinese assistant Mr Tang, his wife and family.

City of Life and Death is an exceptionally well-made film, a true war epic, although, like Schindler's List, it could also be accused of being much too attractively photographed in glossy black-and-white, effectively glamorising a subject that should simply be unwatchable. It's hard to imagine however how else a film about the Rape of Nanking could be made. What matters is how honestly and effectively the film approaches the subject and the historical reality, and while it spares us graphic detail of the worst abuses, the full mounting horror of what occurred and the impact it must have had on individuals caught up within it is unquestionably fully felt. A powerful and moving film then and essential viewing, but like Schindler's List, perhaps not one you'd want to come back to watch very often.

This epic film about the siege and massacre of Nanking in 1937 by Japanese forces pulls no punches, and depicts things as they were, at least as best as that can be accomplished while focused on the perspectives of a small number of recognizable characters. While there are heroic acts on the part of a few, there are no real heroes here who manage to make it through all the way against all odds. In the face of this atrocity, there is no Schindler to save the day (for some), and the Nazi businessman who does try to protect some of the women and children left behind when their husbands have been executed, ends up leaving, with regrets, when he's called back by the German leadership who are unwilling to risk antagonizing Japan. While there are atrocious acts on the part of many, the film does not seek to demonize so much as to demonstrate the devastation of war on all who are a part of it. The film doesn't in any way excuse the rapes and the murder of civilians that did take place during this awful event, but it does manage to make clear that many who perpetrated these actions had been damaged by the war and had reached a point where they had become numb, where the prevalence of death had deadened them to the possibilities of the life and love they destroyed.

Celebrated Chinese director Lu Chuan, whose previous film was the very effective but much smaller scale Mountain Patrol: Kekexili, makes the unconventional (and, as it turned out highly controversial in his home country) decision to convey events largely from the perspective of a young Japanese officer, named Kadokawa. Following a brief introduction that establishes some of the historical backdrop, the film opens on the sleeping face of Kadokawa, who awakens in the midst of the siege and is greeted by friends, excited for his army's success. We see, though, that he is not entirely insensitive to the impact of his fellow soldier's actions on the lives of those who remain in the city. We follow his perspective intermittently throughout, and where the ultimate sympathies of the film lie clearly lie with the besieged Chinese, it is clear by the end that Kadokawa and many of his fellow soldiers were also victims of the war. Apart from following the fates of a number of different characters, the film does not offer a conventional narrative arc that would focus on the struggles of a protagonist this is, rather, a portrait of the massacre as a whole, that never loses sight of the fact that its victims (and its perpetrators) are all individuals. It also does not dwell exclusively on horrors, but shows that in the midst of things still children play, that friends and lovers find ways to assure one another of their affection, and that the living often can find grounds for hope and reasons to persevere even when events are awful, as when a Chinese soldier who'd been captured for a likely execution along with a young boy, looks to the boy to smile and they touch foreheads, to reassure the young man of his friendship, rather than dwell on his own likely fate.

Even though it was made recently, the film is captured in a vibrant black and white and it is a good thing, too, because it establishes something of a historical distance, that manages to at least soften some of the still awful horrors the film conveys without flinching. The camera is handheld through much of the film, giving the feel of a documentary camera on the ground; it also steps back on occasion to establish a sense of location and a sense of the scale of what was taking place. The music is mostly atmospheric, giving a sense of the period, and while it never feels like manipulation because the feelings evoked are genuine and warranted, the filmmakers don't shy from occasionally using song to emphasize the courage or resilience of the Chinese in the face of the massacre, or to emphasize the awful sadness of the families and friends of the women who gave themselves to be used by the Japanese soldiers so as to protect their children. This is not an entertaining film, it is even, I would say, a devastating film, but it is not a depressing film because it manages to capture precisely the inhuman devastation of a real situation that should not be forgotten, without losing sight of the humanity of those who lived and died through it.

Buy City of Life and Death: 2 Disc Special Edition (2011) Now

We in the West firmly believe we're first in all things. Our triumphs are greater, our tragedies more shattering. "City of Life and Death" offers a rebuttal to that argument; the Rape of Nanking sadly ranks high among the great atrocities of the 20th century.

In late 1937, the Japanese army conquered the then capital of China and in the months that followed their occupying force adopted a systemic policy of rape and murder: an estimated 300,000 were killed and as many as 80,000 Chinese women and girls were raped. Thankfully, writer-director Lu Chuan tells the story of this massacre in gorgeous black and white imagery, giving it a documentary feel. I have no doubt that if this movie were shot in color it would be too unbearable to watch in one sitting.

"Life and Death" is broken into two sections. The first shows the fall of Nanking. The Chinese army, cursed with horrible equipment and worse leaders, fights valiantly but is doomed. The Japanese move in and soon the Chinese trample each other in flight. These early scenes recall "Saving Private Ryan" in their gritty realism.

The second section focuses on the occupation of Nanking, and the tone shifts from a war movie into much darker territory. As the Chinese are rounded up, we meet a few Japanese soldiers. The most important of these is Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi), a grunt who becomes our eyes from the invaders' perspective. These Japanese soldiers are terrified young men trying to contain tens of thousands of terrified Chinese. This may be the last moment of balance the movie offers.

Once the Japanese have secured Nanking, they abandon humanity. Waves of Chinese, soldiers and civilians, adults and children, are efficiently disposed of: incinerated, machine-gunned, bayoneted, or buried alive. A Nazi businessman, John Rabe (John Paisley), creates the Nanking Safety Zone through his diplomatic contacts, but this only offers a temporary stay of execution.

"Life and Death" is not a subtle film, nor should it be. Lu Chuan creates scenes of noble resistance in the face of unspeakable horror. One loses track of the indelible images seared into the brain: the regimented depravity of the rape rooms; the eerie war dance of Japanese soldiers through a conquered city; the horrified screams of parents as their young daughter is thrown through a third story window. It's no surprise that thousands of Chinese protested at the sympathetic portrayal of a single Japanese soldier.

Some might argue that "Life and Death" is a propaganda film, advocating Chinese nationalism. Such critics ignore the toxic context of this movie, which comes complete with deniers. (Recently, scores of Japanese politicians went on record decrying the Rape of Nanking as a fabrication of the Chinese government.) This is not a story where a filmmaker can refuse to take sides. "Life and Death" tells an ugly story beautifully. To that end, it stands shoulder to shoulder with "Schindler's List." Watch this movie, but plan on doing something to make you smile the next day. You'll need it.

The "City of Life and Death" DVD offers English subtitles but no dubbed version (Chinese dialogue spoken in Mandarin), movie stills and a recommended making-of documentary, "Matters of Life and Death."

Review originally published on

Read Best Reviews of City of Life and Death: 2 Disc Special Edition (2011) Here

For many years, I have been waiting for a powerful film that would show people of the atrocities that took place from December 1937-January 1938 in the capital city of Nanking.

While there have been several films on what occurred in Nanking over seventy years ago, young writer/director Lu Chuan accomplished what many felt he couldn't do, to create a realistic portrayal of the genocide.

Known as the Nanking Massacre and also the "Rape of Nanking", the atrocities were committed during the Second Sino-Japanese War when the soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army slaughtered civilians of all ages, raped women until they died. It is estimated that 300,000 people were massacred.

Despite records kept by Nazi-supporter John Rabe (the person who tried to save the Chinese in Nanking by developing a safe zone) , the records kept by Westerners working for the Red Cross or were missionaries and journalists and residents who witnessed the atrocities, to this day, the genocide of the civilians of Nanking is still being disputed by Japanese nationalists who believe that the massacre was fabricated.

Needless to say, because of the war and atrocities that were committed during the war, it remains to be a tense and problematic situation between both countries today.

I have researched the Nanking (or Nanjing) Massacre since I was in college, as my eyes were opened to the atrocities committed, I know that many people around the world are not familiar of what happened to the Chinese people. And since the '90s, I have been wanting to see novels receive film adaptations and while there have been several films featuring John Rabe and also bits and pieces of the battle of Nanking, there have not been many movies that would realistically capture the battle but also the atrocities committed by the Japanese Imperial troops towards the Chinese people of Nanking.

Especially since its a touchy subject and the fact that many Chinese still hold a lot of pain and anger towards the Japanese because of the war. And for director Lu Chuan, his goal was to create a realistic portrayal of the atrocities committed towards the innocent civilians of Nanking but also to show a sympathetic side to the Japanese and show that while what the Japanese Imperial soldiers did do to Chinese was barbaric, it does not make the whole country barbaric.

In an interview with Empire Magazine, Lu Chuan said, "Yes, Japanese people committed a crime but maybe it's not a fault of a certain nation, maybe it's a fault of the war, so I'm not going to make a movie against a certain nation, but against the war. If the government forces us to go to the battlefield, everybody can be a killer."

But most importantly, it was a film that Chuan, who did countless research, lived and studied in Nanking wanted the film for people outside of China to know about what took place in Nanking.

"City of Life and Death" was created with a budget of $10 million, casting of hundreds of people which would include both Chinese and Japanese talent and the film would receive rave reviews from critics worldwide and would win numerous awards around the world for "Best Film" and "Best Cinematography".


"City of Life and Death" is presented in 1080p High Definition (2:35:1), black and white. Director Lu Chuan was influenced by Spielberg's "Schindler's List" and felt the film should be kept in black and white and the decision to do so, in my opinion, made the film quite effective. Because the film already focuses on the atrocities committed by the Japanese towards the Chinese citizens, the film would be too gory to watch if we were to see blood everywhere. But by no means does that mean picture quality would be inferior.

In fact, this film is enhanced by its high details. From the worn out skin of the soldiers, the grime on the skin and dark blood (which is seen as black) on the soldiers is shown effectively in HD as well as the clothing as you can see the stitching patterns and the threading with clarity. Skin pigments with clarity. Especially with the destruction of buildings during the battle, the scene of Nanking looks realistic in the film.

Black levels are deep while whites and grays have amazing contrast and the picture is sharp.

But I must credit cinematographer Yu Cao for capturing the brutality and the massacres with his camera shots. What is captured on camera is heartbreaking, stunning and realistic. The details are in the eyes, shots of fear, panic, despair...and people with tears knowing that they are not going to survive the ordeal... I was literally captivated and sickened at the same time. To know that what is shown on screen is non-fiction and these atrocities took place (and many situations even worse as seen in photos from Nanking), many times during the film, I had to pause and collect myself.

This is the second time this has ever happened to me, the other time was watching Alain Resnais' "Night and Fog", a documentary about the Nazi concentration camps. But the fact that a film such as "City of Life and Death" can have this much of an effect, it goes to show how viscerally powerful this film is.

So, overall...picture quality is magnificent, cinematography is fantastic!


The lossless soundtrack of "City of Life and Death" is magnificent. Presented in Mandarin DTS-HD Matster Audio 5.1, let me first preface and say that there are not many Asian films (non-animated) that I have watched and felt were immersive but I have to say that the soundtrack for this film is hauntingly immersive as one can expect from a war film.

From the battle between the Chinese and Japanese, to hear the bullets zipping from all around you, to hear the gunfire, the tanks and mortar rounds going off close by or to a distance, to hear explosions from a distance and to hear the screams whenever a soldier shoots in the air, the realism of fear, sadness, pain and everything brutal that can be heard in a film about the massacre of innocent people is captured on the soundtrack of "City of Life and Death".

To have a film that can captivate you visually but also via audio, needless to say, I was quite impressed and as Yu Cao did a wonderful job with cinematography, Tong Liu did a magnificent job with the music of the film.

With powerful visuals and powerful audio, needless to say, "City of Life and Death" was certainly an experience. I heard no problems with the audio, Mandarin was crystal clear, each artillery fire was amazingly clear and once again, this lossless soundtrack is absolutely immersive and enhances your appreciation for the film!

As for subtitles, English subtitles are optional and are easy to read.


"City of Life and Death" comes with the following special features:

Disc 1:

Kino Lorber Trailers

Stills Featuring stills from "City of Life and Death"

Disc 2:

Matters of Life and Death (1:53:56) It's important to note that the second disc is not a Blu-ray but a DVD. The documentary or making-of features an interview with director Lu Chuan and the talent. But we learn how much of a challenge it was to create this film but also how the talent felt the power of this film and what they felt at the time of making the film.


"City of Life and Death" comes with a slipcase cover.


Heartbreaking, brutal but the most honest portrayal of the atrocities committed in Nanking for cinema.

For so long, I have waited for a film of this caliber to be made on the "Rape of Nanking". Because it would probably answer a lot of questions for many people of why there are continued tensions between China and Japan. But also to understand how war can make regular people do terrible things.

Back in college, I learned a lot about the Armenian Genocide and Nanking Massacres but while my college due to its large Armenian student population would have memorials for those who were killed, there is not much out there for people to know about what transpired in Nanking in 1937-1938 unless you go out and look for it.

Having studied Asian culture (especially with focus on Japanese culture), it was interesting to see things on brother's side who is more closer to Chinese culture and him experiencing first hand through his Chinese father-in-law of the long-lasting pain and anger that Chinese have towards Japanese. It was an intriguing juxtaposition because I recently wrote about how my grandfather fought against the Japanese in World War II but he told me that what happened then was due to war.

So, as I was researching this film, I ran a quote by director Lu Chuan with Filmmaker in which the director said, "Why is there war? I wanted to make a movie about the Nanjing massacre, but then I started to explore the history of massacres, during the Ming and Qing dynasties, and learned they happened everywhere. It's not something that belongs to Japanese people. So I decided to [articulate] this kind of feeling in my movie. I don't want my son or daughter, younger brother or sister to look at the Japanese [in the] way [we did]. It's not true. The massacre was in 1937. After 70 years, we have to reconsider it from a different angle. The Japanese troops were criminal -but the biggest criminal was the war itself. It twisted human nature. It pushed normal people to pull the trigger. I was in the army for several years, you know. I know if I was in uniform on the battlefield, I would pull the trigger on strangers if the [military] authorities asked me to."

And in China, since childhood, people are taught about what happened during their war against Japan and what Japan did to them, it doesn't help when Japanese nationals continue to say that the genocide was fabricated. And while the modern younger generation (in Japan) feels no attachment to what transpired in the past, they are not taught about the atrocities committed by their own people and pretty much, it's part of the history that is hidden from them. But many young people know that Japan at the time, are responsible for a lot of terrible things due to war, a lot of other countries have also done the same throughout time.

So, war is always ugly and war brings out the worst in humanity.

And what happened to the people of Nanking back in December 1937-January 1938 is shocking, disturbing and you can't believe how people can be so cruel and barbaric but it happened. And there is only so much one can do by reading a book, online and seeing the photos. But for many people, they need the visual and "City of Life and Death" amazingly captures the massacres, the pain, the suffering of people with so much efficacy. People have to remember, this was a low-budget film featuring hundreds of people, many who have never worked on a film before. But yet, each role was crucial, each scene must look realistic and for everyone who participated in this film, they did a magnificent job in making the film real for us viewers.

As mentioned earlier, this is the second film where I had to pause and collect my thoughts and just take time and wait a few minutes because the massacre of innocents was making me feel sickened and to the point where I felt like crying because I have never seen humanity become so cruel to innocent people. I know genocide has happened within my lifetime but what took place in Nanking is shocking. From the massacre of 300,000 people, from soldiers having contests on how many people they can behead (and this was featured in a major Japanese newspaper publication as two soldiers were having a contest), to the rape of thousands of women and girls who were raped repeatedly until they died. And there was no respect for these women. These soldiers did their thing and not shown in this film but you can find photos are what soldiers inserted in women after they killed them.

And what is so unforgettable are the details captured by the cinematography of the film, when thousands are shot to death, people being buried alive, trying to escape but they can't. But just looking at the eyes of the characters, the tears, the lifelessness, the fear and in death.

Filmmaker Lu Chuan had encountered many challenges in making of this film. From those who didn't want to support it because of its content or that it was a film that a young director could not handle, but he proved them wrong. He was able to write and direct a film that captured the atrocities and brutality against the Chinese people but also trying to show not exactly sympathy but to show that even the Japanese like the character Kadokawa did things that he did not want to do but because it was war, he was conflicted and starts to eat upon his soul.

The Blu-ray release is absolutely fantastic, from amazing picture quality and an immersive lossless soundtrack to a making-of that is not your average run-of-the mill non-exciting feature but there is a lot included in terms of sharing with the viewer of the challenges and the emotional state of the talent who took part in this film. Because it was a thought-provoking film that has not been explored in this magnitude and the result is literally epic.

In fact, this film had so much of a profound effect on me that I hope to visit the Memorial Hall of Victims of the Nanjing Massacre in Nanjing.

Overall, "City of Life and Death" is the most visceral war film that I have seen to effectively capture the atrocities and the brutality of the Nanking massacre in cinema. This is an unforgettable film that resonates within you for a very long time with its realistic and stunning cinematography.

Director Lu Chuan has created a masterpiece! This Blu-ray release is highly recommended!

Want City of Life and Death: 2 Disc Special Edition (2011) Discount?

CITY OF LIFE AND DEATH is a masterpiece of film making, of finding the midline of response to war from both sides, of cautiously but successfully blending intimate stories with the gory atrocities of war, and of recreating a period of history we too soon forget unless prodded by works such as this. Lu Chuan both wrote and directed this vision of the 1937 decimation of Nanking, the capital of China, by the Japanese that lasted in action for only six weeks but that has been a permanent festering wound on the history of mankind that will always be a reminder to what War is about.

Subtitled NANKING! NANKING! the audience is led to expect a film honoring the Chinese who bravely fought to resist of the Japanese invasion and ultimate destruction of the then capital of China. Instead the writer/director elects to put us in the midst of the war, showing all aspects of how war changes and affects and destroys people. The black and white film is able to create the illusion that we are actually in 1937 Nanking. We meet several important personalities from that time: the Chinese Resistance leader Lu Jianxiong (the inordinately gifted and handsome actor Ye Liu), the Chinese schoolteacher Miss Jiang (Yuanyuan Gao) who fights constantly to save her people, the Nazi German John Rabe (John Paisley) who maintains a Safety Zone to protect the Chinese until the Nazis recall him to avoid insulting their Japanese allies, Rabe's Chinese assistant and translator Mr Tang (Wei Fan) and his wife (Lan Qin) who despite the suffering they endure from the Japanese still are selfless in the choices they make to help their people, and Kadokawa (and impressive Hideo Nakaizumi) who as a Japanese soldier is a symbol for those warriors who are conflicted about the cruelty inflicted on the Chinese. These individuals provide stories with the story that allow the viewer to connect to the human aspect of the victims and the perpetrators of the annihilation we are witnessing. There are devastating scenes of the forced 'comfort houses' created to keep the Japanese soldiers happy, the demanded selection of 100 Chinese women to provide physical gratification to the enemy, the massacre of thousands of citizens men, women, children and the destruction of the very city itself. But Lu Chuan balances these with some very tender moments, such as the first sexual encounter of a virgin soldier with a prostitute and how he interprets this experience as love to the point of providing as much gratitude and safety to the prostitute as he can, and the incredibly tender scenes between Lu Jianxiong and a little boy who brings him bullets.

The cast is stunning and while many of us do not recognize the faces, they are obviously some of the cream of the crop of Chinese and Japanese actors. Yu Cao is in charge of the very realistic and photographically perfect cinematography and the musical score by Tony Liu is not only appropriate for the theme of the film but also provides some very simple Western piano music for the intimate scenes. There are multiple choices of subtitles including English. CITY OF LIFE AND DEATH not only documents a piece of martial history that is important to remember, but it is also another way of viewing how WAR can alter the minds and lives of those on both side of the battle. Highly Recommended. Grady Harp, June 11

Save 41% Off

No comments:

Post a Comment