There’s a strong sentiment out there that good films no longer fall through the cracks. It’s a competitive era, especially amongst the powerful film festivals, and we’re living in the air miles age with festival scouts and agents and trackers racking it up a la George Clooney in Up In The Air.
Yet, another year, another The Lives of Others – rejected by Berlin, Cannes and Venice, if you remember, before winning the foreign language Oscar. It’s not possible for Lu Chuan’s film about the Nanking massacre, City of Life And Death (Nanjing, Nanjing), to win the Academy Award this year, however, because China hasn’t nominated it.
City of Life and Deathopened in China and Hong Kong in late April/early May eventually grossing $28m there.Yet despite strong word-of-mouth from Asia, the black-and-white film, a four-year labour of love from Lu (already established as a director of some talent with Kekexili: Mountain Patrol) did not appear in official selection at Cannes (it was in the market). The immediate assumption was that perhaps it was a propaganda piece, Nanjing being such a core issue for China.
Venice and Locarno also skipped over this harrowing piece of work, easily one of the best foreign language films this year. And to add salt to the wound, the fact that the Japanese aren’t one-dimensional monsters in City of Life And Death – although they evidently do not come out of a film about the Rape of Nanking looking good – has meant the film hasn’t found official favour in China and never stood a chance of being the country’s Oscar submission.
Everyone dies in the end…
It took Toronto to give the film its international premiere in September, and San Sebastian to rescue this by-now “old” film from international obscurity in September by awarding it the Golden Shell. After that inexplicable six-month vacuum, City of Life And Death has successfully played Athens, Pusan and London as well as AFI FEST; it is set to go out in the UK through High Fliers in April and in the US via National Geographic Entertainment. It has been a good seller for Media Asia; at the end of the day, buyers can see far clearer than festival myopia and obsession with world premieres.
The Nanking massacre of December 1937 refers to a six-week period after the Japanese army’s capture of Nanking (now Nanjing), then the capital of the Republic of China. It is estimated that up to 300,000 people died in scenes of brute cruelty, rape and heedless carnage that impede international relations to this day.
Oddly enough, this year the Berlin Film Festival showed John Rabe, Florian Gallenberger’s take on the massacre which went on to win four Lolas (German film awards). Gallenberger’s focus, John Rabe, was the Siemens manager in Nanking who became known as China’s Schindler for his part in establishing a protected zone in the city. He also has a large part to play in Lu Chuan’s film, which is so intensely styled and delivered as to make John Rabe look almost superficial.
Lu’s film, shot in monochrome, looks of its era, neorealist yet stylised, uncomfortable close-ups interspersed with elaborate tableaux. The Japanese victors’ war dance through the ruined city will surely go down as one of cinema’s great sequences – chilling yet thrilling, completely unforgettable.
“Everyone dies in the end,” says City’s villain, Japanese commander Ida (Ryu Kohata). This film is no picnic for the viewer; a child is casually thrown out of the window, for example; life has no meaning in Nanking. Later, after another killing, Ida declares that people are “better off dead than living like this,” a continuing concern for a film which tackles head-on the subject of comfort women for the first time onscreen – and from both sides.
In fact, the film’s moral compass is not Rabe, nor his assistant Mr Tang (played by Fan Wei) or the idealistic Miss Jiang (Gao Yuanyuan); it is naïve, sensitive Japanese soldier Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi) who tries to live in the evil surrounding him. He visits a Japanese comfort woman shipped into the ruined city and it is clear that she will also become a casualty of war. And he watches as his fellow soldiers rape imprisoned Chinese women until they, too, die.
City of Life And Deathshows, yet again, why we need mid-sized festivals like San Sebastian, even as over-stretched film executives secretly believe that world premieres here, or Rome, or Locarno, or countless others, have probably been passed over by the T-Rex’s of the festival world for good reason. We’re all guilty of it. The case of City of Life And Death is certainly worth remembering the next time you hear a film being dismissed for not having made the cut at the juggernaut A-fests.