City of Life and Death (8/10)
by Tony Medley
Run time 133 minutes
Not for children.
I’ve written about the
Japanese bestiality before and during World War II, so was
heartened to see that someone was finally making a movie about the Rape
of Nanjing. This is a well-made, terrific exercise in telling a story of
horror that I highly recommend, with qualifications. That said, one must
be steeled for it because what happened in Nanjing is truly horrible.
I’ve seen photographs of a woman being tortured in a public square in
Nanjing during the assault. They were so horrible I won’t reveal what
they did to her, but it’s seared in my memory. I have no way of knowing
how accurate this telling is, but some of it is even worse than I had
Lu Chuan minimizes the agony of comfort women. One scene infuriated me.
One of the Japanese soldiers visits a comfort woman (for your
information, a “comfort woman” was a palatable word the Japanese
substituted for what they really were, sex slaves). She’s a gorgeous
Asian living in what looks like a comfortable bedroom. She’s gentle and
tender and when she finds he’s a virgin, she gently and lovingly
initiates him. This is pure hogwash. “Comfort women” were never
Japanese. They were from conquered peoples, mostly Chinese and Korean.
And they lived a life of hell, providing forced sex day after day after
day with no respite. Check out my articles Japanese and the Comfort
and Rape and Japanese Hypocrisy,
to see what their lives were really like.
As I said in these articles,
just think how horrible it would be to be
captured by a conquering Japanese army and sentenced to continuous
sexual slavery, forced to perform sex acts on and with men, many of whom
were full of venereal disease, 12-18 hours a day, maybe several an hour,
seven days a week...by the de facto government, with no end in sight!
It’s reported that in one comfort station in Burma comfort women were
forced to have intercourse with sixty men in a single day. It apparently
was not unusual in comfort stations for enlisted men for women to have
to have intercourse twenty to thirty times a day. And this was the fate
of hundreds of thousands of innocent women, many of whom were virginal
teenagers when captured and enslaved.
This whitewash of one of the
Japanese most brutal policies is a major weakness of the film and it’s
puzzling that a Chinese director would take this revisionist point of
view. Worse, he shows a scene where women are asked to “volunteer” to
become comfort women to save others. While I don’t know what actually
happened, and while this could be true, I doubt the veracity of this
scene because the Japanese were total conquerors and didn’t need to have
women “volunteer” to be comfort women. The Japanese were as
unsympathetic to the people they conquered as Genghis Khan’s Mongols.
They considered conquered peoples already dead and treated them that
This film is like looking at a
black and white documentary, even though it isn’t (it is black and
white, although on wide screen; it’s not a documentary). The battle
scenes, brilliantly filmed by director of photography Cao Yu, make you
feel like you are in the middle of them. The Japanese cruelty is grim
and severe. There are no velvet gloves used here for the way they
treated their conquered peoples, except for the way the film deals with
The first hour is told, sort
of, through the eyes of a Chinese soldier and a child soldier he has
befriended. The rest of the film is about the people in a refugee camp
and how they were treated by the Japanese.
While this is a first class
film that tells a story that has begged to be told for ¾ of a century, I
can’t really encourage people to go and see it without the caveat that
it is harsh and depressing.
As indicated above, however,
it is not totally anti-Japanese. While it shows their breathtaking
brutality, it takes a nuanced view that the genocide was a dehumanizing
experience that negatively affected everyone, Chinese victims and
Japanese oppressors alike. Lu Chuan said he changed his mind after
interviewing some of the Japanese soldiers who took part in the Rape of
Nanking. These monsters apparently convinced him that they were victims
of their own inhuman brutality, too, so he made his film in a way that
minimizes the blame a viewer casts on the Japanese. That’s pretty
controversial for anyone who knows how the Japanese treated the people
they conquered and captured everywhere, not just in Nanjing.
Along those lines, it is
slightly reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s deplorable Letters from Iwo
Jima (2006) that showed the rabid, ruthless Japanese of Iwo Jima as
just regular guys, morally equivalent to the American Marines and GIs
who were fighting to liberate the Pacific. Painting the cruel, heartless
Japanese who murdered 300,000 innocents in Nanjing with any kind of
even-handed sympathy is something I buy even less than I bought
Eastwood’s revisionist view of the men who fought on Iwo Jima.
Even so, with my proviso, this
is a movie that should not be missed. People should not forget what
happened in Nanjing, and the vast majority probably aren’t even aware of
it, apart from the term “The Rape of Nanking.” This film turns the
phrase into stark reality. In Mandarin, Japanese, English, and
June 6, 2011