You may arrive at 'City of Life and Death' with little or no knowledge of the Nanjing Massacre, but you won't forget what you see in Lu Chuan's epic war drama anytime soon. Once the capital of the Republic of China, Nanjing fell to Japanese forces in December 1937, with official Chinese estimates putting the death toll at 300,000 Chinese. Lu's chronicling of the battle and the fate of the city's surviving defenders and residents is the most disturbing film you'll see this year.
We are introduced to people in both armies and those stuck in the middle. As Japanese troops crush any (or indeed no) resistance, General Lu (Liu) and his men are among the last Chinese soldiers still fighting. Kadokawa (Nakaizumi) is a Japanese soldier traumatised by the actions of his comrades and the reality of war. Mr Tang (Fan) works for the Nazi who runs Nanjing's International Safety Zone and wheels and deals in his attempts to keep its people alive. Helping him is Mis Jiang (Gao), a school teacher who also grows more fearful by the day.
Filmed in striking black-and-white, 'City of Life and Death' brings up the same sense of despair and dread as watching old war newsreels. After the adrenaline rush of street-to-street fighting, we are plunged into the daily struggle for survival of the city's civilians under their new masters and see how the Japanese soldiers dehumanise the Chinese - and themselves. There are firing squads, hangings and beheadings. Women and young girls are raped; children are murdered and each time you think that things can't get any worse they do. By the end you're exhausted and clinging to the small hope which part of the final scene offers.
Lu and his family received death threats because 'City of Life and Death' features a sympathetic Japanese soldier, but his inclusion only heightens the revulsion you feel at the actions of others. Once again, you're reminded that people's capacity for good and evil, selfishness and selflessness is huge and that while history teaches many lessons, mankind only wants to learn some of them.