Friday, April 2, 2010

City of Life and Death

More than anything else in cinema, films about twentieth-century atrocity heighten our awareness of what’s ethically at stake in the representation and dramatization of suffering. Writers across a wide range of disciplines continue to discuss how such subject matter has held visual media—and indeed our entire image-saturated culture—in a moral and epistemological crisis. At times this strain of philosophizing has proven tiresome, particularly in the obvious ways it yokes a discourse of melodramatic extremes (with adjectives like “unfathomable” providing the routine description of the Holocaust) to film theory’s ever-shifting, ideologically charged attitudes toward realism. Still, the topic has the power to organize artists and critics along partisan lines, pitting self-conscious avant-garde practices against seamless traditional narrative, Godard against Spielberg. It’s no surprise then that Lu Chuan’s City of Life and Death has found itself embroiled in a controversy of increasingly global proportions. This big-budget epic about the Nanjing massacre has received a mixed reception not only in China, where its ambiguous political sympathies have periodically been attacked as unpatriotic, but also in the world of international cinephilia, where the atrocity film maintains its schizoid status as a prestige item, a bad object, and a testing ground for the capacities and inadequacies of art.

For viewers on the mainland, City of Life and Death is an unprecedented opportunity to see one of the most devastating episodes in the nation’s history elevated through a universalizing, readily exportable cinematic language. Much of the film’s urgency stems from its conviction, implicit in its aesthetics, that the massacre is worthy of being translated in slick Hollywood terms, and that it should be canonized as one of cinema’s great historical subjects. The process of memorializing those horrific few weeks in 1937 when over 300,000 Chinese civilians and soldiers were exterminated has been an arduous one, since the most conservative Japanese continue to deny that it ever happened, and the PRC government has repeatedly manipulated the facts to its own political advantage. Previous Chinese and Hong Kong–produced films on the subject have been uniformly crass, though audiences have rallied around glorified exploitation flicks like T.F. Mou’s Black Sun: The Nanking Massacre and Wu Ziniu’s Don’t Cry, Nanking (both from 1995), because they at least mirrored the intense feelings the massacre continues to provoke. Since the event only reached widespread international recognition in 1997, when American journalist Iris Chang published her book The Rape of Nanking, this high-class silver-screen treatment seems like one more significant step in granting the mass killings truth and legitimacy, the appearance of a commonly shared knowledge. If the major task of cinematically commemorating a past trauma is to earn it admission into popular consciousness, then Lu’s may be the first truly successful Chinese film of its kind. [The rest of the post can be found at Reverse Shot.]

1 comment:

Akanksha said...

Thanks for reviews ! The movie sounds to be good. I wishing watch it very soon. Let me make a plan. I will surely go for it.
City of Life and Death Movie