Update: I’m happy to say that the paper that accompanies this video has now been published in the Quarterly Review of Film and Video. You can read it here.
I first saw Lu Chuan’s City of Life and Death on my first day in Beijing, when it came out in 2009.
My host mother had offered to take me to a movie while we waited for my host sister to get out of class. In line at the theater, she pointed to Fast & Furious, one of the only English-languge films listed.
At the time, I spoke no Chinese besides 你好/nihao/”hello,” 谢谢/xiexie/”thank you,” and 我高兴/wo gaoxing/”I am happy,” the last one only thanks to an enthusiastic tour guide. But because I was in China, I was determined to watch a Chinese film. I had no idea what City of Life and Death was about – the title is 南京! 南京! in China – but I had seen glimpses of the trailer at the airport when I arrived, and I recognized it on the monitor overhead.
When I pointed shyly to the monitor, my host mother hesitated. She indicated to me that the film wasn’t in English, but I just nodded. She most likely had other reasons for hesitating as well, but I didn’t pick up on them at the time. So she bought two tickets and we sat down in our assigned seats in the back of the theater.
After a confusing and violent first twenty minutes, my tenth-grade history and a handful of English-language postcards featured in the film were finally enough to clue me into what I’d asked to see. The film tells the story of the Nanjing Massacre, a brutal six-week slaughter of Chinese citizens by Japanese soldiers in 1937. Four years after I saw it in the theater, I learned that City of Life and Death has been called “the Chinese Schindler’s List.”
But unlike Germany and the Holocaust, and despite eye-witness accounts and photographs of the violence, certain Japanese officials have claimed and continue to claim that the massacre never took place, complicating efforts towards reconciliation. The director of City of Life and Death, Lu Chuan, created the film to build “a bridge between China and Japan” that would start a new conversation about violence, war, and human nature.
As soon as it was released, however, the film drew intense criticism. Many in the Chinese audience expressed dismay at the film’s sympathetic portrayal of the Japanese soldiers who committed such atrocious crimes. Others condmened the film for showing the Chinese as helpless victims.
Given my own experience with the film, the controversy surrounding it, and the historical importance of the events it portrays, last semester I decided to devote one of my term projects to deconstructing City of Life and Death. I wanted to get to the heart of what the film was really saying about what it means to be Chinese, Japanese, or even just human.
The result was a 17-page paper and, as a bonus feature, the video shown above. I remixed video and audio clips from the film, interviews with Lu Chuan, and other relevant news coverage with related quotes and images to create a video narrative of my argument.* Like the film itself, the video contains scenes that are hard to watch – but it also describes a critical historical event that too many people know nothing about.
My host mother and I walked shell-shocked out of the theater and numbly went to find a restaurant. We said very little about what we had just watched. I still feel guilty about making her see it, when she had most likely been planning a much less traumatic start to my stay with her family. But I am also grateful that I had the chance to learn more about something so profoundly and tragically important.
I definitely recommend seeing the film – just not alone, not at night, and not without a lot of time to process afterward.
* All source material belongs to China Film Group, China Central Television, National Public Radio, or Radio Television Hong Kong.
This video makes fair use of this material in that it:
1. was created for educational purposes, as part of a graduate class term project;
2. analyzes the material used and presents an original argument;
3. remixes the material into an original narrative;
4. uses the material for illustrative rather than entertainment purposes;
5. contributes original cultural value; and
6. does not negatively impact the copyright holders’ revenue (and will hopefully do the opposite).