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The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - Michael Bodey

A MEA­SURE of a na­tion’s film­mak­ing de­vel­op­ment comes when it can as­sess its own tragedies with a clear eye. Aus­tralian films and TV minis­eries did it in the late 1970s and early 80s, by and large, as we moved from the ram­bunc­tious en­thu­si­asm of the early 70s new wave into what ended up be­ing a ra­pa­cious tax-fu­elled 80s in the film in­dus­try.

China is pro­duc­ing some big bud­get films now as it tries to bridge the gap be­tween its cul­tural dif­fer­ences and a global au­di­ence. One of them is a mas­sive state-spon­sored drama­ti­sa­tion of Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nank­ing, called The Flow­ers of War and star­ring Chris­tian Bale and di­rected by Zhang Yi­mou, which we are likely to see here later this year. With­out pre­judg­ing it, I don’t hold much hope for the most ex­pen­sive Chi­nese film made. It looks too, well, ma­nip­u­lated. Fur­ther­more, I can­not see how that film could bet­ter City of Life and Death (MA15+, The Ana­logue Ti­tles, 130min, $19.99), Lu Chuan’s film of the mas­sacre.

The Nank­ing mas­sacre is a stick­ing point in Sino-ja­panese re­la­tions for ob­vi­ous rea­sons. The Ja­panese raped and mur­dered hun­dreds of thou­sands of Chi­nese as they swamped the city of Nan­jing (then known as Nank­ing) in De­cem­ber 1937 dur­ing the sec­ond Sino-ja­panese War. There is some de­bate about num­bers (the Chi­nese say 300,000) or the man­ner of deaths, but there can be lit­tle doubt it is one of the most ter­ri­ble war atroc­i­ties of all time.

That Lu made City of Life and Death (with some Ja­panese fi­nance) is a sign of ma­tu­rity for Chi­nese cinema. It is a blis­ter­ing film with bru­tal re-en­act­ments (stun­ningly shot in black and white) of the waste of war that com­pares with Sav­ing Pri­vate Ryan and Lu’s ma­jor in­flu­ence Apoc­a­lypse Now.

As­tound­ingly, though, Lu fo­cused much of his at­ten­tion on an Im­pe­rial Ja­panese Army char­ac­ter, Kadokawa, who is a sym­pa­thetic one. That led to con­tro­versy in China yet the film be­came a big suc­cess there and sub­se­quently has been em­braced by the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party and shown as part of the coun­try’s school cur­ricu­lum.

That’s rightly so be­cause this film is nu­anced, in­tel­li­gent and a fine ex­am­ple of a film cul­ture grow­ing up. It is har­row­ing but as­ton­ish­ingly good.

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