Lu Chuan's film City of Life and Death lives up to its title. In documentary-like black and white, the writer/director shows the systematic murder of thousands of Chinese soldiers; some are machine gunned, some marched into the sea, some burned, some buried alive. Then the invaders turn to the civilian population and the process of killing continues.
The movie takes a fictional approach to one of the most horrific events in human history, In late 1937, the Japanese army stormed the Chinese city of Nanking — then the country's capital and now called Nanjing. More than 200,000 people, many of them civilians, were raped and killed in what's known as "the Rape of Nanking." Lu says that in his film, which has raised controversy in both Japan and China, he wanted to show that the Japanese had a program for killing:
"I really wanted to show that a massacre in the battlefield is just like industry. It's just like a machine, you know? It use a very complicated program to control the whole machine to eliminate the enemies. So it's human being, you know, can design a complicated program to kill people — it's a very brutal nature."
To understand the experience, Lu interviewed some of the Japanese soldiers who occupied Nanking.
"Basically, they don't want to face their memory. But some of them tell me the truth," he says. "But I should say, to my surprise, they didn't show any regret. They just say something about, 'Yes, I kill people. Yes, I rape some girls. But you know, everybody do that. So I have to do that.' But they never say 'Sorry.' They never feel regret. So for me it's a very bad experience, you know."
Nevertheless, one of the central characters in City of Life and Death is a sympathetic Japanese soldier. And this has turned many Chinese against the film. Lu says that even though many people went to see the film in China, he got death threats.
"Lots of audience — Chinese audience — hate this movie because I choose the angle of Japanese soldier, you know," Lu says. "So they hate this movie because the traditional history education gives most of the Chinese people a feeling that Japanese people are beasts, not human beings, not human beings just like us. So, in my movie, it's the first time I show the humanity of Japanese soldier. So the Chinese audience cannot accept it."
Though the film was made in 2009, controversy has stalled its release outside of China. Now it's finally making its way into theaters in the United States; it opened in New York in May, and began playing in Los Angeles on Friday. The story of the atrocities depicted in the film has been told in recent years by the late historian Iris Chang, whose book The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of WWII was a bestseller. (Iris Chang's mother, Ying-Ying Chang, recently published a memoir of her daughter's life called The Woman Who Could Not Forget.)
One of the reasons Lu chose to show the innate decency of the Japanese soldier was to create portrait of human behavior rather than an indictment of one nation or culture.
Richard Pena, director of the New York Film Festival, says that City of Life and Death really includes three points of view — that of Japanese soldiers, the Chinese in Nanking and the observations of westerners in the city, chronicles of the invasion displayed on postcards sent home.
"If there's one concept that I think really unites the aesthetic principle of the film it is that of 'witnessing,'" Pena says. "And you know, for a long time under the People's Republic [of China], it [the massacre] was practically forbidden to talk about because it was seen really in many ways as a symbol of Chinese weakness. The fact that so few Japanese had been able to terrorize, humiliate and murder so many Chinese was seen in an uncomfortable light. So this film offers, you know, in ways that some people support and some people don't, a kid of varied position on it. And I think in the end the idea that films like this are made — and made in such a way that really not only, how could you say, excite emotions but incite thought, incite reflection, incite meditation — that's what's great. And that gives you hope. That gives you hope that we're, you know, we're better than that was."
Surprises and ambiguities revealed within the film's shifting points of view are central to the story Lu wants to tell. He's made a violent war film because he hates violence and war, and he made a film in which one group of people brutalizes another to show that all people are capable of both horror and remorse.
"I think everybody is the Japanese soldier," he says.
Besides interviewing Japanese soldiers who had been in Nanking, and Chinese survivors of the attack, Lu read journals and diaries and even made a trip to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. to see how the killing in Europe is remembered. He says that what he saw through the making of City of Life and Death did not comfort him:
"I felt I open many, many doors toward the darkness of the heart, you know? So every [time] I open the door, I go deeper and deeper to the soul, to the soul of humanity. So I feel, sometimes I was scared. I'm really scared."
What's most surprising about City of Life and Death is that after all of the horror and fear, some people find the strength to go on.