Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi) is one of a number of characters, mostly Chinese of course, followed by Lu as the Japanese tighten their grip on the erstwhile capital city in 1937. We also encounter a plucky (not to mention lucky) Chinese child soldier and some members of John Rabe's Nanking staff, among others. I found Kadokawa the most compelling character simply because he wasn't just an archetype of resistance or suffering. He's not the first cinematic soldier to seem too sensitive for his job, but you can hardly blame him for his reactions -- you can blame his buddies for their complacency, their casual viciousness, their treating it all as a lark once the last patches of resistance are wiped out. By comparison, Kadokawa seemingly can't help forming personal bonds with people, especially the unfortunates, Japanese and Chinese alike, recruited or impressed into being "comfort women." A curious effect of this film is that, for all the wartime violence, which is, after all, the sort of stuff we've all seen before, what horrifies the most, more than the explosions, the hangings and the severed heads, is the treatment of the female victims. What the Nazis did for mass murder, it seems, the Japanese did for mass rape -- not so much industrializing it as systematizing it. Rape trails war everywhere, but the Japanese in World War II seem unique in apparently asserting their soldiers' entitlement to sex. Rape may have happened on a comparable scale as the Soviets drove through Germany, but we don't get the same impression of perverse order portrayed here, where the Japanese occupiers can flatly demand that the Chinese deliver up a quota of women for "comfort." The most profound moment of pathos in the picture is when, one by one, women raise their hands to volunteer so that the rest of the captive community will at least be promised food and supplies for the winter. Kadokawa encounters one of these women and, as usual, makes an attempt to be a gentleman. As usual, it's in vain. These women's experience is summed up when their naked bodies are dumped into a big wheelbarrow and hauled away by swastika-wearing flunkies. Never did the Japanese seem fitter allies for the Nazis.
Since resistance by the Chinese seemed futile at an early point, I spent the film waiting for Kadokawa to snap or rebel. The moment finally comes when it can help the child soldier and another of the main characters, and it's thankfully not overstated. It's more of a simple refusal followed by a more profound refusal. The effect remains contradictory; if Kadokawa is meant to give the Japanese a human face, the failure of the rest to emulate him, one way or the other, arguably dehumanizes them even further. But you can probably excuse a Chinese filmmaker for drawing that conclusion, history being what it is. People like Kadokawa will probably be exceptional in an army, however Chinese (or Americans, for that matter) might want to flatter themselves otherwise. That point easily gets lost in an atrocity film, the point of which is to highlight one nation's crime against another. City of Life and Death really hasn't much story to tell apart from the atrocity. Some characters survive, some don't; hence the American title. Kadokawa goes a long way toward breaking up the monotony, but viewers may find the film hard to get through just the same.
This is a stark triumph of production design and black and white cinematography, and Lu Chuan shows some mastery of widescreen composition in just his third feature. Nanjing! Nanjing! is definitely an eye-opening film for people unfamiliar with the Chinese theater of World War II and one of its vilest episodes, but it may make you avert your eyes as well. In any event, it sets a formidable standard for Flowers of War to match, and proves another compelling chapter in the global revival of World War II cinema.