Posted by Joel Martinsen on Friday, May 8, 2009 at 5:28 PM
Two movies about the Nanjing Massacre are in theaters in China this month.
City of Life and Death (南京!南京!, "Nanjing! Nanjing!"), directed by Lu Chuan, presents events from the point of view of the city's military defense, civilian refugees, and Japanese invaders. John Rabe (拉贝日记), a Sino-German production, examines the Massacre through the experiences of the title character, a German businessman in China who helped set up a refugee zone in the city.
Lu's film has been lauded for its gritty, unflinching depiction of the horrors of the massacre, and its portrayal of Japanese characters as actual people instead of faceless demons has been both praised and deplored, depending on political leanings of the individual viewer. The German film, directed by Florian Gallenberger and starring Ulrich Tukur in the title role, is either an honest biopic untarnished by the ideological demands of China's film censorship regime, or is yet another example of how westerners don't understand China.
And that's even before you get into the merits of the two as movies.
The title of Raymond Zhou's review in the China Daily, "1 massacre, 2 films and 3 perspectives," sums up the numerous elements that a reviewer of the two movies has to deal with. Zhou comes down on the side of Lu's film:
Translated below are responses from a few bloggers to one or both of the films. This selection is not intended to be representative of the overall reaction of Chinese audiences to City of Life and Death and John Rabe; see Further Reading for a list of other articles, in both Chinese and English.
Don't Be Unfair to John Rabeby Huang Zhangjin / 2009.04.26
On the subject of the Nanjing Massacre, I've watched Blood Evidence (屠城血证, 1986), Don't Cry, Nanking (南京1937, 1995), and Nanking (南京,* 2007). Adding City of Life and Death, which I watched just the other night, that's a total of four films. It'll be five in a few days, when John Rabe hits screens.
At first, I really was only going to see one of the two, City of Life and Death or John Rabe, but after I finished watching City of Life and Death, I thought it over and decided that if I could watch that idiotic movie, it wouldn't be fair if I didn't buy a ticket to see John Rabe.
I don't know why City of Life and Death has gotten such positive press from people in the media; it could, of course, be because they haven't seen it. I once bought a disc of Hoh Xil: Mountain Patrol and fast-forwarded about half the way through before I couldn't take it anymore because Lu Chuan, who's the same age as me, possesses the peculiar flavor of Zhang Yimou and his crew, one I especially dislike, but his natural gifts are far below those of Zhang and Chen Kaige. When he strains, you even being feel a little anxious for him.
The anxiety brought about by City of Life and Death is far stronger than Hoh Xil's, although that may be because I was sitting mouse-less in the cinema with no means of escape, and I had to just sit there and watch his rigorous exertions. How to describe his efforts? It's like when you're watching a child who's not particularly clever but who tries hard to look wise and experienced, and he exerts himself so hard that you, standing off to one side, feel anxious for him, your back slick with sweat.
If you've seen City of Life and Death, you might agree with me on this comparison for performances throughout the film, particularly the actor playing Xiao Douzi, who worked far too hard, and came off annoyingly clumsy and incredibly obstinate.
I'm really the sort of person who is happy to relax immediately upon sitting down in the theater, I'm easily manipulated by the plot. But for this entire film, it was like I was sitting in an office watching a reporter write up a particularly lousy article, wanting every now and then to help him cut out and revise huge chunks. All I can say is that Lu Chuan's an extraordinary guy.
City of Life and Death has an awful script, and even though Kadokawa's perspective isn't bad, the whole lengthy portion from Liu Ye's entrance to his murder I found entirely superfluous. Liu Ye is a great actor, perhaps among China's top male actors, and my sister's really infatuated with him. But in this film, Lu Chuan reportedly asked him to make his performance "macho," and, probably because he's the sort of fine actor who understands the director's meaning, his performance in the role is perplexing and infuriating. (As an aside, the sole bright spots in the movie were the few actresses.)
In the sequence where he commands his subordinates to prevent the routed troops from leaving the city, when he hunkers down and links up with those around him to form a solid human wall, he is so worked up that the corners of his lips tremble. That brief shot reminded me of dialogue that spills from the pens of talentless idiots who hide themselves inside the chest of every character, where conversation is carried on in the style of stage drama or the printed page.
This film even goes so far as to make you angry. When you receive a manuscript that's trash, when it's obvious from a mere glance that no care was taken, that the entire thing was simply glossed over, you may be disappointed but you won't get angry. But a moronic manuscript prepared with great care, great diligence, and great effort, one that the author is fully confident will resonate with you in some way — what you find fatuous is precisely what he is waiting for you to praise. When I was watching the stupidest parts of the film, I could sense that those were the very parts he wanted to you see, and he was prepared to explain to you in solemn tones how hard he worked on them.
Then at the end, when Xiao Douzi and the fat soldier are released, clap their heads, and then go off into the distance, giggling, I almost stretched out my hand to pause it: Hey, wait a minute, don't always be like an elementary student who's just learned about ellipses and then uses them all the time to convey the idea that this right here is really deep, and its implications are really far-reaching.
In many places in City of Life and Death, the director has taken pains to create scenes of tragic heroism, as if, moved by the thought of the audience unable to control the tears streaming down their faces, he himself is unable to stop weeping, and as a result is led to worry about whether or not his desired effect will be stillborn, something I've long expected of him. Of course, as you know, when I watched Painted Skin my eyes were moist, yet watching City of Life and Death was only oppressive. The film has completely misunderstood what is meant by stoicism.
Of course City of Life and Death is far better than what I remember of Blood Evidence, and as for Wu Ziniu's Don't Cry, Nanking, while I find City to be infuriating, a comparison of the two would be an insult to Lu Chuan.
In my mind, the best film about the Nanjing Massacre is Nanking, which I saw with a few colleagues the year before last. It doesn't count as a true documentary because the foreigners involved were played by actors, yet it did not endow itself with any particular mission: spare and vivid, it was very Hollywood and quite moving. I think that John Rabe ought to be even better.
Exiting the theater, there were City of Life and Death posters and trailers everywhere, and they particularly caught my eye because of the promotional language they used, which had the flavor of "XX Estates: Just one building remaining!"
No matter the subject matter, when you've got to watch two films in a row, it does feel a little weird, but then I think about it and dammit, I've already wasted the money to watch City of Life and Death, so I can't be unfair to John Rabe.
John Rabe's Bowdlerized Diaryby Jeremy Zeng / 2009.05.02
Two Nanjing-themed movies have arrived at the same time, and no matter who wins at the box office, they've led to quite a discussion about Nanjing-related issues, and this is a good thing. I believe that both films will benefit from the discussion and that both will find success at the box office — there's no need for a winner and a loser. But watching them face off is pretty interesting, so I don't want to stop them.
John Rabe in John Rabe is a member of the Nazi party who chats over tea with citizens of the Allied powers, tolerates Chinese citizens trampling the Nazi flag underfoot, and sings drunkenly with an Englishman, "Hitler has only got one ball...."* these may not be factually correct, and perhaps they are the screenwriter's additions, but they apply a layer of fairytale coloring to the bloodsoaked Nanjing winter and make you to hate the people who shattered that fairytale even more.
Yet in the same way the fictionalized elements of City of Life and Death — John Rabe kneeling and Kadokawa committing suicide — are unsatisfying, a few of John Rabe's more obvious deficiencies sap the power of what were excellent themes and characters.
1. Scene-wise, John Rabe's big scenes were fairly crude, with expressions, movements, and voice work always reminding you that these were extras. When Chinese prisoners were mowed down by the Japanese army, they fell over in order like dominoes, without a glimmer of struggle or fright, or the numbness and despair seen in City of Life and Death. It was like the Japanese were strafing a pile of wooden planks, except that wooden planks wouldn't have fallen over in quite such an orderly manner.
2. Zhang Jingchu's romance with the German was unnecessary and came out of nowhere.
3. Zhang Jingchu, a student, risked killing two officers, putting on a Japanese army uniform, and taking her younger brother to go in and out of nighttime Nanjing, which was like an empty city, pushing her father's corpse, and the Japanese soldiers even saluted her. I suddenly felt like I was watching Women's Special Forces, and if Zhang's student could have the run of Nanjing, it's a wonder that the Japanese army wasn't massacred by the students at Jinling Women's College.
The most important point is in its handling of history. After one scene in which a demand to hand over the women was righteously refused, women in the movie's Safety Zone apparently suffered no more abuse, and no women were mentioned as being handed over. There was only that one time when the Japanese army killed injured soldiers and a few doctors, and another time when the Japanese asked female students to strip in order to check whether or not they were really female.....(speechless)
The screenwriter seems to want to show that Rabe's efforts kept the Safety Zone well protected, but fears that depicting too much Japanese army-related violence in the Zone would harm Rabe's image.
But Rabe's real diary contains this record:
"An American once said, 'The Safety Zone has become a brothel for the Japanese.' This statement is largely in accordance with the facts. Yesterday night around 1,000 girls and women were raped, in the Jinling Women's College alone, more than 100 girls were raped. These days all one hears about is rape. If brothers or husbands come out to interfere, they're shot by the Japanese. All about me is the cruel violence and brutality of the Japanese army thugs."
Someone who only watches this movie without reading John Rabe's own writing will be under the impression that the Japanese army really "followed the rules" in the Safety Zone. Nothing but a "strip search," so what are Chinese wailing about?
Lu Chuan's City of Life and Death has John Rabe fall to his knees, and this has been criticized for not being factual. I wholly agree: all of the fiction dreamed up by the wishful thinking of directors and screenwriters becomes a distortion of history. If Rabe never knelt, then he never knelt, and if the Japanese soldier never committed suicide, he didn't commit suicide. So why force upon them the "guilt" that the director desires?
So is John Rabe's replacement of rape with a strip search whitewash or betrayal? Rabe wasn't a saint: there were things he could not do and he could not protect everyone, but the Chinese people understand this and are grateful to him all the same, so what's the need to make his image so immaculate that things he clearly recorded in his diary are avoided or excised? Is Rabe's spirit appreciative of the producers' care for his image? Or does he grieve over the deletions from his diary?
City of Life and Death shakes you where it is true to fact, and where it fictionalizes, it loses the power to face the facts.
John Rabe the diary is more real than the movie. John Rabe himself is more sincere than the screenwriter.
City of Life and Death: Fantasizing the Mainstream Historical Outlookjix / Douban, 2009.05.05
I finally watched City of Life and Death, a movie that had nothing but conclusions and fantasizing on the part of the director.
Massacring a city is a humanitarian tragedy, a dark shadow over the history of human civilization, the foulest chapter in the history of war, and the most mournful page in China's war of resistance. I want to emphasize this point to head off suggestions that I'm on the wrong side. There are people who, first think, always look at your position in a discussion, regardless of whether the question itself has been asked correctly, and this naturally glosses over the need to pursue an answer.
City of Life and Death is practically a science fiction movie. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that the Nanjing Massacre was imagined. There's no question that I've never doubted the truth of that period of history. But we're in need of a "truth" that is not just a Yes or No answer. We also need a Why and a How, a Who and a When, and only then will we be able to ground our reflections and discussions in the truth, only then will the judgments and conclusions we reach have real value and meaning. We want history to be a mirror, but when history is unclear, what can it reflect?
Yet these questions are nowhere to be found in City of Life and Death. I say that City of Life and Death is science fiction because the entire movie seems like a made-up time and place, a stage drifting in the blackness of space, with no prior history, no surroundings, and no context. The people who appear have no names, no history, no lives, no souls, and no connection to the world they inhabit. Even the director's occasion attempts to portray the mental activity of the characters are disjointed and fragmentary.
Motivation is practically nonexistent. Why did the Japanese army massacre the city? Or, on an individual level, why would a Japanese soldier turn so blood-thirsty? Why did the people not fight back? Or on the same an individual level, why would an ordinary citizen not fight back? What I want is not the conclusion, "fight back," but a "why," what was their thought process? How did they face their own lives, their own fate? How did they face a war that stripped away the lives of family, friends, and themselves? How did they face an army that resembled them in face and physique but had the actions of a demon?
The movie assumed all of this, that the Japanese army's bloodthirstiness, cruelty, and inhumanity did not require any explanation. Similarly, it presupposed that the Chinese were simply numb, mere insects awaiting slaughter. The Japanese soldiers in the film (apart from Kadokawa) were used solely for killing. Likewise, the Chinese in the film were used as cannon fodder, toppling to the ground throughout the film to quickly and effectively achieve the director's expectations. Like sacks piled up against the flood waters, they were expressionless, lifeless. Is there any difference between this and our familiar mainstream historical perspective that sees the only the collective but not the individual?
Many people have mentioned the depiction of "humanity" in City of Life and Death. Yes, there is humanity, but it is only granted to a main character. And even so, the Japanese soldier called Kadokawa has no identity, no rank, unit designation, age, or birthplace, and you know nothing about him apart from the fact that his mother made delicious hotpot. The movie grossly omits all reasonable explanations, leaving Kadokawa with no origin and giving us absolutely no background on this "person." Thus, while Kadokawa does have an ultimate direction - suicide - this cannot cover the blankness of the film's one real character.
And we're told only his surname, Kadokawa, leaving even his given name unknown. Think about it - this is how the central character of the entire film is treated. As for supporting characters like Lu Jianxiong (do you even know who he is?), Miss Jiang, and John Rabe, they're even less deserving of an explanation. As for the city of Nanjing, the film has no time for it. The director hopes that we will arrive at a new understanding, but an understanding of what? An understanding based on what?
City of Life and Death caters to the complaint mentality of mainstream victims, an approach essentially no different from mainstream films of the past. The only differences are in its Korean blockbuster-style A/V effects, and the perspective of one Japanese soldier dreamed up by the director. Yes, I compare it to a Korean blockbuster and not a Hollywood blockbuster, because although it has learned how to employ an abundance of savagery and bloodshed, it has failed to grasp the Hollywood technique of using tried-and-true tricks to create meaning.
As for the perspective of the Japanese soldier dreamed up by the director, I will grant that it is an innovation, and that it at least breaks through the old mainstream method of using tall, strong, perfect, heroic characters to alienate war. Yet Kadokawa is still an illusion; he lacks a personality and identity, and his depiction is one and the same with the way our textbooks describe Duan Cunrui and Lei Feng. His suicide after an internal struggle is nothing more than a perpetrator's mentality imagined by the director from the perspective of the victim, a way to obtain compensation.
The suffering Kadokawa is strictly speaking an observer on the margins, not even a perpetrator himself. Apart from occasional military maneuvers and scraps of dialogue, you wouldn't even know that he was connected to the other Japanese soldiers. Did the director really try to understand the perpetrators? Why would a man, an army, and a country grow so consumed with ruthlessness as to turn into a demon? What is in their minds as their deeds are carried out? After they are finished, how do they face that demonic stretch of their own experience?
I apologize, these questions are apparently not ones that director Lu wants to bring up. City of Life and Death supplies a place called "Nanjing," not even rating as a city because it's only an army camp, a refugee zone, and a church, and the depiction of the army camp and refugee zone are insufficient.
History is also lacking. How was Nanjing, the grand capital of China, occupied by the enemy? Why didn't the citizens flee? Did no one anticipate the Japanese army's atrocities? The film supplies only effects, not causes. Kadokawa's death may appear to have a cause, but that was imposed by the will of the director, an incomplete cause crudely stripped of content. It's like we've heard about a college student who leapt to his death and we're only interested in his love troubles, because a girl he liked rejected him: it's a short-sighted view, basically tabloid journalism or society news. We may not have the drive to track down the root cause for every young person who commits suicide, but our understanding of history cannot simply stop at the level of tabloid journalism.
City of Life and Death turns everything into a symbol: invaders, Chinese soldiers, massacred civilians, rescuers, the entire city of Nanjing, and even the massacre itself.
However, when something becomes a symbol, its depth, and the depth of the discussion it generates evaporates. When historical events and individuals are turned into symbols, they become topics that cannot be explored or discussed.
My greatest misgiving after watching this film is that our attitude toward history is still blinded, truth is still choked with falsehood, and debate and discussion remain prohibited. At the same time, our mainstream historical outlook still has room only for the whole and not the individual, a perspective and mindset that has remained unchanged for two thousand years.
The Nanjing Massacre, a great tragedy in human history, asks us to face it boldly and discuss it openly, to return to the grim causes and courses of historical events. It also asks us to restore every individual, every person who has been replaced by a statistic. Yet I fear that City of Life and Death will only propel a new generation further down the old road, continuing the difficulty we have in pursuing true study and reflection.
When Lu Chuan Gets Depressed, We Get Uncomfortableby Teng Yun / 2009.05.01
I get the feeling that Lu Chuan has depression or OCD. I've seen his three movies: in The Missing Gun (寻枪, 2002), Jiang Wen's approach was immediately obvious, and Lu Chuan was merely a puppet; in Hoh Xil and City of Life and Death, he finally became his own master, and his depression therefore became more finely-honed as well.
Concerning City of Life and Death, I suspect that many of the positive reviews were paid for, or else they're from similarly depressed colleagues won over by witless humanitarian packaging.
I went to see City of Life and Death fully prepared for depression, and indeed it turned out to be depressing. I also went prepared for Lu Chuan's so-called new interpretation of war, but the result was not only not new, it didn't even compare to John Rabe or Spielberg. So I tried comparing it to Band of Brothers or Soldiers and Their Commander (我的团长我的团, 2009), but the distance was still quite far.
For more than an hour, apart from going into detail about rapes and murders and demonstrating that devils are actually people too, Lu Chuan does not convey any of his own thoughts on war. His narrative techniques, too: nothing more than a child's affected smile, "China will never perish," a slew of pained expressions, and countless tears, plus thrown-together mildewed elements like ragtag soldiers fighting a war of resistance, patriotic prostitutes, traitors experiencing an awakening, and a repentant enemy. In addition, the whole mishmash is crude and coarse.
Talking about humanity is not something you'd compliment someone for, but saying someone ignores humanity is an insult. So don't think you've had some great awakening, or that you're greater than anyone else, merely because you've started talking about humanity. Yet the humanity in City of Life and Death is overemphasized, it tries too hard to tell you some great truth that even people born in the 90s are already well aware of.
But this is a miscalculation, and because the film is already mercilessly stripped down, the combination of a great hatred with a great introspection is a sum of positive and negative that ends up at zero. To the mind of an observer, this only adds to the depressive torment: you cannot hate, you cannot love, nor can you understand or sympathize. Discomfort is the melody, but beyond that, it's still the sum of positive and negative, and my tears did not flow, my fists did not clench, humanity did not resonate, peace was not on the horizon. Watching this film, I would rather it had been simpler and more direct, the things it expressed a little more pure, rather than this jumbled, heavy mess. No one's paying to get punished.
In my mind, this is what makes a good film: you are moved after watching it, it sticks in your mind, it stirs you emotionally in places. But it's not a tear-gas bomb, nor does it stick in your mind like a nightmare. What moves you is not a pat conclusion or a grand statement of humanity. In fictional movie, it is the characters that first engage us, not the central idea.
Turning back to City of Life and Death, I had none of these experiences watching it. It was like I was watching a documentary, but one that was not at all real. No wonder so many people have lashed out at Lu Chuan, because as he has constructed it, the Nanjing Massacre of history has been changed.
Of course, in Lu Chuan's interviews we learn other things: the professionalism of the Japanese actors, the silly giggles and low efficiency of the Chinese participants, Japanese actors who bowed in apology to actresses after rape scenes, things like that. It's absurd material, stuff that could probably be assembled into a pretty good outtakes reel, and for this reason I think it's worthwhile to shoot another film — new reflections on war by the descendants of the invaded people.
By this point, the discomfort has nothing to do with the movie anymore.
All City of Life and Death Box Office Receipts Should Go Toward Building a Carrierby Zheng Yuanjie / 2009.05.02
City of Life and Death, which revisits the Nanjing Massacre, has been on screens for a week, and its box office take has passed 100 million. This means two things: first, the film is a success, and second, Chinese audiences are willing to spend money to remember that unbearably shameful history in order to revitalize the nation.
I believe that no Chinese person who watches City of Life and Death can escape feeling dispirited. We will think of lots of things. We must do our utmost to prevent a recurrence of such a national shame.
City of Life and Death brought in more than 100 million in just one week, demonstrating that ordinary Chinese people today have not forgotten the tragic deaths of their forebears in the Nanjing Massacre. Taking their purses to the cinema is the unique way in which they remember their ancestors. This astronomical box office take (which probably be more than just 100 million), minus the cost of filming, should all be put toward building China's first aircraft carrier.
The invading Japanese army landed in Shanghai, then captured Nanjing and carried out the cruel, inhuman Nanjing Massacre. Decades later, Nanjing's descendants used cinema to revisit the Japanese massacre and take in more than 100 million at the box office. We are unsure about what to do with such a massive sum, and only if it is put toward a carrier strengthening national sea defense for coastal areas including Shanghai will our consciences be put at ease toward the countless members of earlier generations of Chinese who died in the Nanjing Massacre.
If this idea can be realized, then even if this sum is merely a pittance compared to the cost of building an aircraft carrier, China's first carrier still should be called the Nanjing, Nanjing.
Links and Sources
China Media Timeline
Major media events over the last three decades
Danwei Model Workers
The latest recommended blogs and new media
Front Page of the Day
A different newspaper every weekday
From the Vault
Classic Danwei posts
+ Culture and corporate propaganda in Soho Xiaobao (2007.11): Mid-2007 issues of Soho Xiaobao (SOHO小报), illustrating the complicated identity of in-house magazines run by real estate companies.
+ Internet executives complain about excessive Net censorship (2010.03): Internet executives complain about excessive Net censorship at an officially sanctioned meeting in Shenzhen.
+ Crowd-sourced cheating on the 2010 gaokao (2010.06): A student in Sichuan seeks help with the ancient Chinese section of this year's college entrance exam -- while the test is going on!