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City of Life and Death

'City of Life and Death' (2009)

This is the second time I have watched this film, and I think I rate it higher now than I did previously. I cannot understand why it is not spoken about as one of the greatest war films ever made. It is a masterpiece. The black and white cinematography is perfect for the gloomy atmosphere of war, as we see the events of the Nanking massacre unfold, and together with some of the most effective surround sound I've heard outside of a cinema (bullets flying everywhere, tanks roaming and shrapnel buzzing past the speakers etc)

It focuses on the Japanese occupation of Nanking, China in 1937, and is based on true events. Those events are shocking, harrowing and extremely difficult to watch. One particular moment midway through the film really shakes the viewer. Chuan Lu focuses on several characters throughout the film (on both sides of the conflict) and his direction shows tremendous empathy for all of them. He actually received many death threats for portraying the Japanese character Kadokawa so sympathetically, which is extremely harsh given how the Japanese army and government is portrayed throughout the rest of the film. Other characters are a a school teacher, a foreign missionary, and John Rabe, a Nazi businessman who would ultimately save thousands of Chinese civilians.

It's estimated that over 20,000 Chinese women were raped during the siege of Nanking by Japanese soldiers. Some of this is depicted in the film, with disturbing scenes. There are also scenes of brutal torture and execution. Although if anything, the film goes light on it compared to what is alleged to have occurred. The only reason I can think that this is under-praised is that it features a Nazi and Chinese soldiers that for once are not the bad guys.

It's a tough watch, but it is essential for any cinephile who is keen on war / history films. No prizes for guessing if this will be on my ballot or not