City of Life and Death: The Rape of Nanking

City of Life and Death: The Rape of Nanking

When Chinese film, City of Life and Death, was released in China it grossed tens of millions of dollars in its first few weeks of showing. Japanese behaviour in China during WW2 has been a highly contentious issue ever since the end of the war. Many in Japan argue that the events were exaggerated for propaganda purposes, with the Chinese still, even to this day, embittered at the genocides and war crimes that were perpetrated against them. The controversy of Japanese behaviour in China still causes deep hatred in China nearly a century after the events.

The film starts with a confrontation between Chinese troops. One side were trying to leave the city, the other side were trying to stop them. This beginning showcases the chaos that had engulfed the Chinese war effort in the city. The Chinese turning against each other. The Chinese unsure of what action to take. When the Japanese arrive, there is a set piece battle between them and the remaining Chinese forces. The last of the Chinese troops are killed or captured and the Japanese take control of the city.

The film is shot in black and white giving it a dark appearance to document a dark period in the history of the city of Nanking. The Chinese film maker Lu Chuan writes and directs the spectacle that is such a significant and terrifying part of modern history. It stars leading Chinese actors Gao Yuanyuan, Qin Lan, Liu Ye, Fan Wei and Jiang Yiyan, who all bring to life the human story behind the politics and war of 1930's Asia.

Chinese-American historian Iris Chang made her career on writing about the genocide in Nanking. In her book, the Rape of Nanking, Chang uses as a key source the diaries of Nazi Party Leader in Nanking, John Rabe, to document the genocide in the city. Rabe became the administrator of the International Safety Zone in the city and has been hailed in China ever since as a national hero for his efforts to save the citizens of the city. The massacre and mass rapes were so evil that a committed Nazi in Rabe becomes a saviour. After Rabe returned to Germany he spoke with passion about the massacres in Nanking. Rabe was warned to halt holding public events about the Rape of Nanking by the Gestapo. The German government was concerned that Rabe's talks would damage German Japanese relations. After WW2 Rabe struggled to make a living and died in 1950. Rabe's dedication to helping the citizens of Nanking have glossed over his Nazi affiliations.

The Rape of Nanking has been described as the forgotten Holocaust of WW2. Compared to the European genocides perpetrated by Hitler, the Nazis and their allies, this war crime has largely been forgotten outside of China with very few ever even hearing of it, let alone its importance and savagery. The film, and the work of historians like Chang, haven't really altered this. The tragedy of this superb film is it didn't win the best foreign language film at the Oscars. Had it done so the events of Nanking may well have become more popularised. Films like Schindler's List and The Pianist have acted as stark reminders of Nazi crimes during WW2, but this film could've acted as a similar catalyst for the Rape of Nanking. This makes this unique piece of Chinese film making even more tragic. With its combination of factual history and engaging artistry this film is better than Schindler's List and more powerful than The Pianist. With it being shot mainly in Mandarin its international appeal was limited but its strength is in its gripping story telling. Its pure emotion and its undervalued legacy.