The Rape-of-Nanking Movie No One Wants to Admit Isn’t Very Good 

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City of Life and Death
Directed by Lu Chuan

Despite its mediocre quality and questionable tactics, Lu Chuan’s City of Life and Death—a two-hour-plus epic about the Rape of Nanking—is earning nearly across-the-board praise in the U.S. after a successful, albeit controversial, run abroad. There are predictable reasons for this: City is the first major film on the Japanese atrocities committed against the Chinese during WWII to receive American distribution; for all its unblinking depictions of state-sanctioned slaughter and rape, it provides comfortably familiar markers of the war genre (“gritty” yet Time-Life-worthy black and white handheld cinematography, alternating wide-scale and intimate views on historical events, an uplifting end note); it addresses sensitive subject matter often considered invulnerable to criticism regarding aesthetics or representation.

Lu’s is a post-Saving Private Ryan directorial approach to war: open with battle and massacre scenes so up-close-and-personal that the verisimilitude of mayhem overshadows any weaknesses in the human drama. Of course certain images in City—helpless POWs mowed down in Nanking’s public square, Chinese women forced to serve as sex slaves—possess an inherent power, but the film’s individual stories are too lacking in dimension or development to carry the film beyond its restaged brutalities. The most wrenching portrait is that of Mr. Tang (Fan Wei), a Chinese man who tragically believes cooperation with the Japanese will exempt his family from persecution. Unfortunately more typical of City is the undercooked tale of Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi), a Japanese soldier who travels the well-worn road from patriotism to disillusionment; after repeatedly looking on in only mild shock at the horrors perpetrated by his countrymen, his concluding act of violent contrition registers as the film’s last, desperate attempt at unearned poignancy.

Opens May 11

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