Written and directed by Lu Chuan, City of Life and Death (2009, China, B&W, 133 minutes, Kino International) will start its Twin Cities run at the Landmark Lagoon Cinema on June 24. Ghostly ink on letters and post cards sent home by foreigners living in 1937 Nanjing confirm the worst – Shanghai has fallen and the Imperial Japanese Army is preparing to attack the Republic of China’s capital Nanjing.
A homesick young Japanese soldier Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi) pauses as his division assaults on the city while on the other side of the wall that protects Nanjing, battle hardened Chinese Kuomintang Army (KMT) regular Lu (Liu Ye) and his comrade Shunzi (Yisui Zhao) join a human fence of loyal KMT soldiers attempting to keep deserters from leaving their posts.
Lu, Shunzi and a child soldier Xiaodouzi (Bin Liu) doggedly engage the enemy, but they’re outnumbered and short on ammunition. Onscreen more postcards confirm – Nanjing is falling.
A civilian delegation led by German businessman John Rabe (John Paisley) accompanied by his Chinese secretary Mr. Tang (Fan Wei) appeal to the Japanese command to honor an international refugee Safety Zone within the city. After ambushing Japanese troops with grenades and rifle fire, Lu disbands his platoon, is subsequently forced to surrender to the Japanese and is reunited with Xiaodouzi in a makeshift KMT prisoner of war stockade.
Imperial Army details simultaneously barricade surrendered Chinese in a burning warehouse, mow down KMT prisoners with machine gun fire, and bayonet and bury civilians alive. Kadokawa and his friend the brutal Japanese Commander Ida (Ryu Kohata), rest on the shore of the Yangtse before Kadakawa loses his virginity to Yuriko (Yuko Miyamoto) a Japanese woman working in a makeshift “Comfort Women” brothel facility.
After Imperial Army soldiers violate the Zone and sexually assault several girls Mr. Tang and a young schoolteacher Ms. Jiang (Gao Yuanyuan) instruct the Chinese women in their care cut their hair and dress like boys. Xiaojiang (Jiang Yiyan) a Chinese prostitute, refuses.
Japanese raids on the Zone increase in frequency and brutality, Kadokawa’s relationship with Yuriko deepens, and Rabe receives word that he has been recalled to Germany. In an effort to protect Mrs. Tang (Lan Qin), their child daughter, and his sister in law May, Tang tells the Japanese command about injured Chinese soldiers hidden within the zone. His plan backfires tragically when the Imperial army storms his home.
At a mass gathering of Safety Zone refugees, Rabe tearfully passes along an Imperial Army ultimatum. The Zone will remain intact, he explains, if 100 Chinese women agree to serve in the Japanese Comfort Women brothels. May and Xiaojiang are among those who come forward.
On the threshold of escape from Nanjing in the company of his pregnant wife and John Rabe, Mr. Tang makes a fateful decision. The Japanese army corrals the remaining Nanjing refugees and orders the men onto trucks that will take them to be killed. Told that families may save one male relative each, Ms Jiang disguises herself to rescue both Shunzi and Xiaodouzi but is caught.
Imperial Army soldiers prepare a drum ceremony to commemorate their victory. Though Kadokawa is at the front of the parade, the horrors he has witnessed and committed have cost him dearly and hurt him deeply. A short time later in a field outside the city, he chooses his own destiny after deciding the fates of both Shunzi and Xiaodouzi.
“The Nanjing Massacre is a very special memory for every Chinese person,” says City of Life and Death director, writer and executive producer Lu Chuan. Though born decades after the massacre, Lu Chuan was, like the rest of his countrymen, thoroughly indoctrinated in the official history of the 1937 crimes that claimed an estimated 300,000 victims from boyhood on. “Every Chinese citizen knows that history,” he says.
Lu Chuan’s creative road to City of Life And Death really began while the future director was completing university study and compulsory military service in Nanjing during the early 1990’s.
“I visited the memorial there commemorating the massacre,” Lu Chuan says. Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall’s combination of artifact exhibitions, video displays, outdoor monuments and a partial excavation of skeletal remains proved overwhelming for the director. “The experience really shocked me at the time. I saw the pictures in the massacre museum and the documentaries there and many, many, many skulls, you know? That memory is deeply ingrained in my heart.”
A decade and a half later, those images, emotions, and impressions proved galvanizing. “I finished my second movie ‘Mountain Patrol: Kekexili’ and I needed to find a new project,” Lu Chuan says. “All of a sudden I began to think that maybe the Nanjing Massacre might be a good topic to do a film about.”
What followed was an exhaustive two-year period of writing and research into the Japanese invasion, occupation, sexual slavery and genocide in Nanjing in 1937 and 1938, based as much as possible on eye-witness and first person accounts, and primary resource documents from both sides of the massacre. Lu Chuan’s search for the most complete possible picture of the human toll taken at Nanjing eventually led him all over the globe.
“I went to Washington DC to visit the Holocaust Museum,” he says. “I also got information from Taiwan. The war in 1937 was between Japanese troops and Kuomintang troops, and the Republic of China had a lot of information.”
Western eye witnesses to the horrors of Nanjing like American teacher Minnie Vautrin and Nazi party member and businessman John Rabe maintained vivid diaries and correspondence detailing the living nightmare they endured. The Nanjing Museum also compiled survivor testimony from the few Chinese nationals who lived to relate their experiences. But in his search for the fullest view possible, Lu Chuan sought out another group of survivors less inclined to share their memories of the appalling six weeks of unchecked aggression at Nanjing.
“I went to Tokyo to interview some of the oldest veteran Japanese soldiers,” Lu Chuan says.
He credits individual custodians of memories, documents and keepsakes from the Imperial Army’s attack and occupation of Nanjing with helping him to create a more nuanced and emotionally resonant mosaic of Nanjing’s destruction. “I got a lot of support from private individuals,” he says. “They gave me Japanese soldiers’ diaries, letters, and personal photographs.”
Lu Chuan offers that his global research immersion awakened a deeper understanding of the disturbing human realities that lay behind the genocide.
“In China,” Lu Chuan says, “we are educated to see one very basic and simple truth – from the time that they’re young, everyone in China is educated to hate the Japanese. Japanese troops were very brutal, so Japanese people are very brutal and we have to hate the Japanese. It’s textbook, you know?
“They’re not human beings, they raped women, they raped very young girls, they even raped their own women,” he adds. “But over two years of research and writing some ideas changed in my heart. I found the basic truth that a massacre is not a special talent of the Japanese people. It’s a talent of human beings, you know? All kinds of people kill all kinds of people. That devil is always in everyone’s heart, so as human beings we need to be very careful. It’s not just a tragedy for the Chinese killed in Nanjing, it’s a tragedy for the Japanese soldiers who killed them. The Japanese are normal, ordinary people just like us. War is the thing that makes people transform into animals.”
After nine months of post production and a six-month waiting period, while Chinese government censors went over every frame in Lu Chuan’s final cut (two short scenes were excised per censors notes), City of Life and Death opened in Beijing in April of 2009. Some one million Chinese saw the film in the first 19 days it was in release.
But challenging the unofficial doctrine that the Nanjing Massacre was somehow the result of an aberration in the Japanese national character was more provocative for native audiences than the director had assumed.
“I wanted to make a different movie, an independent movie, because I studied the history and I had my own conclusions,” Lu Chuan says. “I didn’t want to turn the Chinese people against Chinese history, I just wanted to show the basic truth to them. I wanted to wake them up, but the result was that I just woke up a huge fury!”
En route to substantial domestic receipts in China (25.7 million in US dollars – in China a bone fide hit and for Lu Chuan’s investors a near double return on their outlay), City of Life and Death also earned its director condemnations and even anonymous email death threats.
“The film was the topic of a lot of media controversy from TV commentators and newspapers and on the internet and was a big source of debate,” Lu Chuan says. “I was called a traitor on the internet and in newspapers. But I was also honored and respected by other people. This movie was a totally controversial movie in China. But it created huge box office.”
Controversy has followed the film across the globe.
In a move that The Hollywood Reporter called surprising, the Cannes Film Festival overlooked City of Life and Death as a selection for international competition. “People from Cannes saw the movie in China and also asked us to send it to Paris,” Lu Chuan explains. “Everybody on the board saw the movie and everybody loved it. Nobody thought it was a propaganda film. But they purposefully ignored it for selection in competition because they wanted to choose another Chinese film that had a French distributor.”
It wasn’t until summer of 2010 that Kino International began negotiating with CAA in Bejing on behalf of China Film Group. A deal granting Kino all North American film rights to City of Life and Death was signed in Oct 2010.