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.