The film is entitled The City Of Life And Death, and while the title itself may be one of the more telling aspects of the piece, even its masterfully conceived title can’t hint at just how beautifully created this emotionally draining piece of cinema truly is.
Life And Death follows the events that became known as The Rape Of Nanking, the more well known name of the Battle Of Nanjing, that took place during the second Sino-Japanese War. The Japanese took control of the Chinese capital in 1937, and ultimately took the lives of not only a total of 56,000 soldiers amongst the two sides, but roughly 300,000 civilians as well. This is the first big-budget feature out of China dealing with this event, and is based on the testimony of those men and women who were somehow able to survive this horrific event. And yes, the film is as harrowing, but equally stunning, as one would expect.
Directly, the film follows the story of Chinese officer Lu, as he attempts to lead a resistance, while also focusing on the stories of a German businessman, and a Japanese soldier dealing with a battle of his own, with his conscience, all over the span of just around two hours. With much of the events told in real time, this may be one of the greatest pieces of bravura filmmaking that 2011 has to offer.
With only three films to his name, director Lu Chuan is arguably the biggest star of the film, giving the film world a truly gorgeous tale of human nature, and what happens when human nature is fueled by the blindest of hatred. Many sequences here are told in real time, only adding to the films emotional depth, particularly during the exterior battle sequences, or the storming of a building. The camera is as fluid as the blood being spilled on the ground, and is just as emotionally punishing. Yu Cao shot the film in stunning black and white, making this one of the more emotionally oppressive viewing experiences one is likely to have. At its core a morality piece, Life And Death will punch you in the face, and its Chuan’s beautifully unflinching hands that are the ones bruising your soul. And you should only be so lucky.
Performance wise, the film is also top notch. Hideo Nakaizumi is the star of the cast, playing the Japanese soldier with a conscience, or at least who is in battle with one. His performance is just as heartbreaking as Chuan’s unrestrained direction is, and adds a great depth of emotion to a film that for all intents and purposes, would be simply too relentless if it didn’t have something so potent to say. Liu Ye and John Paisley are equally as good, and also give their own resonance to a picture that needs as much emotional depth as humanly possible to give some sort of meaning to a narrative that if given to any less skilled hands, would be nothing more than cheap and repulsively depressing.
A viscerally effecting bit of filmmaking and an equally moving tale of just how dark the human race, and more specifically war, can get, The City Of Life And Death is a poetic lamentation telling the tale of one of the world’s darkest hours. A truly tough watch, there may not be much of a silver lining emotionally here, but thematically, this will leave any viewer buzzing. Brilliantly acted and even prettier directorially, the film is a world class soul crusher.
And now, thanks to Kino, the world can see it not only in stunning HD, but paired with one hell of a making of.
Yes, the transfer for this Blu-ray is top notch. The black and white photography bursts off of the screen here, and the soundtrack pops with each gun shot. It’s a masterful transfer that, while the source material isn’t old, still shocks with just how fantastic it is. However, it’s the second disc that is the reason to really pick this sucker up. The film comes paired with Matters Of Life And Death, a two hour long making of documentary that is both odd, and also really enlightening. The film takes a truly in depth look into the making of the film, and just how tough it was to get this sucker to the big screen. Through various delays and financial issues, the film was a passion project for Chuan, and it truly shows both in the final product, and within this documentary. It’s a bit long and a bit of a tough watch in that the film doesn’t really have the greatest of momentum, but for any aspiring filmmaker, this is an absolute must watch. Also, it’s as good a supplement as you’re going to get. A scholarly commentary would have been nice to give more context to the events surrounding the film, but overall, this is a brilliant film, given a truly fantastic release. Kino has definitely done it again with this puppy.