A Tale of Nanjing Atrocities That Spares No Brutal Detail

Two terrible faces stare out from “City of Life and Death,” a fictionalized telling of the Rape of Nanjing, a pair of indelible bookends for this anguished film. The first belongs to Lu (Liu Ye), who, with hundreds of other soldiers, has been rounded up by invading Japanese troops amid a frenzy of violence. The close-up of Lu’s impassive face locked in unspoken emotion floods the screen. Much later, after innumerable deaths and acts of barbarism and heroism, the face of a woman will similarly fill the screen in close-up, her frantic eyes stretched wide, as if they had been permanently shocked open by what they have seen.


These faces are mirrors of the hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians tortured and killed during the mass butchery also known as theNanjing (formerly Nanking) massacre and recounted with reverberant melancholy in “City of Life and Death.” Some 70 years after it made world news, the story of Nanjing has begun to re-emerge in fiction and nonfiction books and films, including Iris Chang’s 1997 “Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II,” the first full-length history in English. Written and directed by Lu Chuan, “City of Life and Death” hews close to the account that Ms. Chang (an American whose grandparents fled Nanjing before the siege) culled from survivors and other sources.

History weighs hard and steady on “City of Life and Death” without encumbering it. Mr. Lu provides little background and context for the massacre, which occurred nearly half a year after the start of the second Sino-Japanese war (1937), doubtless because his Chinese audience needed no such instruction. Instead, after briefly setting the scene through a series of handwritten postcards, he opens with Japanese troops breaching the monumental wall that once circled Nanjing. Restlessly and with increasingly clear narrative purpose, he begins cutting between the Chinese surging to escape and the advancing Japanese soldiers who refuse to let them pass, a tactic that sets the film’s insistent contrasts — the immense and the intimate, the mass and the individual, the cruelties and the kindnesses — immediately into dynamic, dramatic play.

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