Nanjing’s Fantasy, Lu Chuan’s Flaws
At the end of April 2009, City of Life and Death—a movie four years in the making—arrived in cinemas around the country. When the film opened, director Lu Chuan repeatedly emphasized to the media that he wanted City of Life and Death to depict the “Chinese resistance” during the 1937–38 Nanjing Massacre. On hearing this emotional statement by Lu Chuan, hovering in the unique atmosphere engendered by the 60thanniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, it was hard for audiences, media and film critics to escape the idea that this film was a successor to our nationalist, patriotic and revolutionary realist cinematic traditions—hard, that is, until they entered the cinema.
Through black-and-white cinematography and the perspective of a stern outsider, City of Life and Death reconstructs a vague and dubious “Nanjing Fantasy.” It cleverly employs a nationalist mood, patriotic script, and realist images, while remaining almost entirely irrelevant to what these doctrines actually signify. In the film, we see Chinese soldiers awaiting their deaths, fruitlessly shouting slogans such as “China cannot die!”; we see a traitor disregarding national interests, but for some reason taking on the burden of saving national history; we see a religious teacher who is faultless, loyal, and would rather die than surrender—but who nevertheless submits several hundred innocent women to be comfort women. Even stranger, some highly “unusual” portrayals of Japanese soldiers appear on our own screens: soldiers who are uncertain about the war despite having initiated it, soldiers who participate in a citywide massacre but then paint over the victims’ suffering with their own wounds. Perhaps it is because of this that so many audience members suddenly realize in the middle of the screening: This director has deceived me!
To fall asleep or to be woken with a start in a cinema is perhaps one of our most unpleasant modern experiences. While the whole audience is under the impression that City of Life and Death will use themes we are familiar with to offer up an ideological lullaby, director Lu Chuan unexpectedly employs humanist methodologies, as well as his own ideas on human nature, to beat the “Japanese drum” for the people—a performance which, in the celebrations as the Japanese army occupies the city at the end of the film, becomes a forceful, fearful, uncontrollably fantastic victory song. In this sense, City of Life and Deathis unable to engender the same sympathetic response as other revolutionary films we might recall, such as From Victory to Victory (1952), Railroad Guerillas (1956), Heroic Sons and Daughters (1964), Sparkling Red Star (1974) and even the Decisive Engagement series (1990, 1991, 1992). On the contrary, it is very consciously part of a long line of films such as Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993), Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient (1996), or even Roman Polanski’s The Pianist (2002).
Everyone knows that this list represents a catalog of the world’s most “classic films,” as well as a catalog of the world’s “elite directors.” However, when compared to other, similar films in this “catalog of classics,” Lu Chuan’s City of Life and Death cannot give anyone—including its audience and its characters—any comfort or hope. All it can do is employ a kind of “quasi-fascist aesthetic” to show the inescapable omnipresence of death and decay in “war.” It is often easy, when employing humanism to express the meaning of death in war—the ravaged bodies, the homes trampled underfoot, the destruction of life, the souls swallowed up and the beliefs broken down—to reduce these things to abstract rhetorics of human nature or cheap, universal values. Lu Chuan’s greatest flaw, as well as his greatest danger, is that his priorities are reversed; he has chosen to use war and death as mechanisms to express his infatuation with so-called “humanism,” to the extent that in depicting this resistance against a fascist war of aggression, he has chosen a Japanese soldier—Kadokawa—as the primary male lead.
In fact, when City of Life and Death opened, the first thing to grab everyone’s attention was the matter of this Japanese Kadokawa’s “viewpoint.” This viewpoint, unprecedented in Chinese film, dominated the discussions of ordinary audiences and film critics alike. Some authors have pointed out that this kind of reflective viewpoint suggests that Lu Chuan has begun to set his sights on history, as well as the bitter recollections the Chinese people have of this history. This marks a conscious shift by younger directors to move away from the confines of personal growth narratives, and assume a filmmaker’s cultural, moral, and historically enlightening role. However, in the case of Lu Chuan, whose priorities are so backward that he is not afraid to deceive his own audience’s emotions, there is still a very large question mark over whether he can really take on this heavy responsibility. As my friend wrote in her own article: “The most novel aspect of City of Life and Death is seeing the Nanjing Massacre through Kadokawa’s eyes—in other words, ‘putting yourself in the other person’s shoes.’ But this act is not necessarily free of danger... (because) you cannot simply and abstractly swap today’s Chinese audiences with the Japanese aggressors of 1937. When Lu Chuan decides to broad-mindedly tolerate a hostile other, to what extent is this ‘other’ actually real?”
However, Lu Chuan’s problems clearly run deeper than this. The choice to continue this Japanese viewpoint throughout the film inevitably represses and even excludes the film’s “other” viewpoints and images—and the “others” in City of Life and Death are, in fact, the “resisting Chinese” constantly on the director’s own lips. Try to imagine a film depicting the war against Japan without a single complete depiction of a Chinese person. How could you discuss the resisting Chinese? Lu Chuan’s own interpretation of this is as follows: “If you film according to character, you may create a classic feature film, but you will have lost the opportunity to embrace true history and reality.” In other words, Lu Chuan’s ambition lies in attempting to use so-called true history and reality to transcend the traditional classic narrative, as well as attempting to use the on-screen fragmentation of the Chinese masses to restore in its entirety the Nanjing of 1937. The next question must be: Is it possible for City of Life and Death to realize such a transcendence and restoration? I am sad to say that, for those of us who have now seen the film, the answer is no.
The fragmentation in City of Life and Death starts with the film’s name, which in Chinese is Nanjing! Nanjing! This name is said to have come from a Japanese military code-word, similar to “Tora! Tora! Tora,” which was used in the attack on Pearl Harbour. (This code-word was the command for the invading Japanese army to attack Nanjing.) From the start, the film’s name makes clear that this history is doomed to split into two destinies. The film’s international title, City of Life and Death, bluntly transforms the Nanjing of 1937 into a genuinely nameless city which resembles an imaginary castle in the sky, unable to land at specific historical coordinates; it also resembles what some people have described as a hell on earth, full of suffering, slaughter, and death. Therefore, the film’s backdrop and set—the ruined presidential palace, the deserted cathedral, the statue of Sun Yat-sen tumbling down, the streets that lead who knows where—the effect, onscreen, is no different to that of a makeshift revolving stage set up carefully at a fair. However, the audience within this vacuous and fragmented visual maze is so fatigued that they are completely unable to reach through the depths of history to a Nanjing that still lives on in spirit.
The compression of historical space into an aesthetic landscape is undoubtedly City of Life and Death’s most fatal flaw. Lu Chuan’s reversed priorities regarding humanism and reflection on war, the repression and exclusion of Chinese people inherent in the Japanese soldier’s viewpoint, and the fragmented expression of image and space, are all in some way the result of this compression of historical space. At the same time, taken together, they also form a concrete symbol of this film’s aesthetic landscape. It is not only Lu Chuan’s thirst for “transcendence” and “restoration” that lies, unfulfilled, behind these “compressions” and “symbols”—it is easy to believe that they are also carefully concealing a superficial and defective view of history. The most direct reflection of the latter in City of Life and Death is its rough handling of its chosen historical era. To quote from Mao Jian’s evaluation: Lu Chuan still “thinks that history means specifying the year 1937 and reading two paragraphs of John Rabe’s diary.” Unfortunately, though not unexpectedly, audiences once again saw this naïveté from Lu Chuan in his new historical drama, The Last Supper.
In this sense, transforming a historical era into space, which is in turn expressed as a kind of aesthetic landscape, is perhaps the greatest crisis to strike Chinese screens in the last ten years. Zhang Yimo’s Hero and The Flowers of War, Chen Kaige’s The Promise and Forever Enthralled—even The Founding of a Republic and Beginning of the Great Revival, which narrate the history of modern China—all these films can be seen as further evidence of this crisis. The flaws apparent in the films of Lu Chuan’s generation make it clear that at least some of their number are still moving very much within the orbit of these fifth generation Chinese directors—and that furthermore, on that wide road, they have not yet made it very far.
 Translated by Sarah Stanton.
 Zhang Bing, “Nanjing! Nanjing!: Bei tihuan de jiyi,” 2009.
 Mao Jian, “San shi ba sui de Zhongguo nanren,” 2009.