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'City of Life and Death': The aesthetics of historical horror

'City of Life and Death' - Lu Chuan

One of the most horrific consequences of the conflicts between Japan and China in the first half of the 20th century was the Nanjing Massacre, often referred to as the ‘Rape of Nanjing’. After the Japanese forces captured the city of Nanjing in December of 1937, they engaged in acts of large-scale rape and murder of the local residents. While some have claimed that China’s official death toll of 300,000 was fabricated for political reasons, Japanese nationalists have even insisted that the massacre never happened.

Lu Chuan’s 2009 film City of Life and Death is an appropriate response to those attempts of denial, chronicling the atrocities that took place during this difficult period in the history of the country. For any historical film to undertake the massive responsibility of conveying the truth, it has to come clean about the extent to which it is capable of documenting such events. City of Life and Death does that by acknowledging that it is a dramatisation but strangely, it loses none of its power.

“In China, I think the biggest problem is truth in history,” Lu Chuan claimed while explaining how the truth had been distorted by internal as well as external agencies to facilitate their own interests. In the film, the director constructs a grotesquely carnivalesque space where the structures of power are laid bare. When presented with a situation where men are allowed to do what they want to by assuming the violent role of conquerors, empathy is replaced with something more animalistic.

Although it is often compared to Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List, City of Life and Death is in a league of its own when it comes to translating the experience of war to the cinematic medium. Presented through the beautiful black and white cinematography of Cao Yu, Lu Chuan makes the audience complicit by transforming them into voyeurs who can’t help but appreciate the aesthetics of historical horror. The frenetic visual narrative coupled with the perfect representation of the chaos of war makes City of Life and Death a hauntingly strange experience.

Lu Chuan responded to the comparisons between his work and Schindler’s List by pointing out that the latter is a commercial film, as opposed to what he has achieved. This is partially true because while City of Life and Death is not a conventional commercial vehicle, it contains moments where the subtextual messaging sets off the psychological alarm bells designed to protect the audience from propaganda. However, as a document of what human depravity is capable of, very few films of the 21st century have managed to do what Lu Chuan has.

Fleeting visions of children caught up in battle and the ruins of war flash before our eyes, as we flit from one scene of unimaginable hatred and violence to the next. Fields full of innocent citizens are mowed down by the incessant stream of bullets from machine guns, women are systematically commodified and assaulted by some Japanese soldiers while others are too busy looting whatever they can find. There is no redemption waiting for any of the guilty, only death and disease.

The reason why City of Life and Death is now recognised as one of the most important Chinese films of the modern era is that it captures the essence of war and the trauma it can cause in those involved as well as the future generations. Towards the end, one Japanese soldier says: “Life is more difficult than death” before taking his own life and rolling to his demise like the young girl in Robert Bresson’s Mouchette. That has certainly been the case for the survivors of the Nanjing Massacre who have had to live with the pain and the anguish for everyone and everything they lost, choosing to bring children into a world that is capable of such hatred.

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