Movie Review: The City of Life and Death

The Second Sino-Japanese War is a relatively unknown part of the Second World War here in the US. Japanese troops invaded Manchuria in 1931, and by 1937 sporadic skirmishes had evolved into a full-scale war which would claim more lives than both sides of Hitler’s invasion of Russia. The Imperial Japanese Army was a brutal occupying force, an its actions following the capture of the Chinese capital of Nanking ranks with the worst incidents of the European Holocaust. Iris Chang brought those events back into the world’s awareness with her landmark work The Rape of Nanking in 1997.

As you might expect, a movie describing these events it not exactly going to be a jolly good time. I recently had the opportunity to watch Chuan Lu’s masterpiece film The City of Life and Death which depicts the battle for the streets of Nanking and the atrocities that followed. The picture is in Chinese and Japanese (with English subtitles), and filmed entirely in black and white. The choice to not use color gives it a distinct air of 1930s authenticity and an appropriately stark atmosphere.

The first third or so of the movie has some of the best combat footage I’ve ever seen – as good or better than any American blockbuster. It is shown from the point of view of both Chinese and Japanese soldiers, and the attention to detail in the sets, weapons and equipment is excellent. This is fighting as it actually happens, without the gratuitous fireballs and spraying machine guns we usually see.

Once the city falls, the focus moves to the International Safety Zone where a Nazi businessman named John Rabe was (somewhat ironically) instrumental in protecting many Chinese civilians from massacre. We follow Rabe’s Chinese right-hand man as he desperately attempts to save his family and the refugees in the Safety Zone (which is anything but).

I’m not much of a film connoisseur – my taste is normally for flashy popcorn flicks that don’t require any thought. But even I can appreciate the extraordinary skill with which this film was made. The camera work is breathtaking, capturing the chaos of combat, the stoicism of doomed Chinese prisoners, and the terror or civilians trying to survive in an environment as terrible as Stalingrad or the Warsaw Ghetto. This is a film that should be seen by anyone who wants to understand what war is truly like, and it’s not a film that can be taken lightly. I would plan to spend some solitary time reflecting on its implications after the final credits roll.

The trailer doesn’t really do it justice, but it does give¬† a taste of the cinematography:

Somewhat to my surprise, it is easily available in the US – you can get a copy right here through Amazon:


  1. I watched this recently on Netflix and could not agree more. The street fighting was very well executed. Switching back and forth from sympathetic angles kept the watcher well oriented in the action. The productions values and cinematography were spectacular by any standard. The storytelling did not suffer from coming from the Chinese perspective. A must see for fans of history and military action movies.

  2. Looks like the name of the above film, in Chinese is, NanJing (southern capital). You should also check out the epic Korean made WWII film “MY WAY” taking a young Korean and his Japanese competitor from the1936 Olympics to the War with Russia in early 1940 (Russia beat the Japanese), to a Russian prison camp, escaped, joined the Germany army and found themselves at Normandy on 6 June 1944. Based on a true story!

  3. Yes, it is indeed a great movie. They have gone to great lenghts to reproduce the urban warfare environment in detail. I am sure you noticed the genuine Type 95 Ha-Go light tank in running condition used for the street fight sequence among other things. Excellent soundtrack too, btw.

    Besides, Gao Yuanyuan, the actress who plays the role of Jiang, the young teacher that helps people into the safety zone, bears a haunting resemblance to a charming Chinese girl I crossed paths with many moons ago…

  4. This film can offer some explanation to a “fact” that one of the simplest ways to commit suicide in the China, Korea or Indonesia is to call any local a “Jap”.
    It seems that all those people hate Japanese way more than, say, Belorussians hate Germans.

    • Way more, I would say! The hatred against the Japanese is widespread in China or Korea (and the Philippines, of course) and it isn’t even dormant or anything like that. It stronger than any sort of ethnic, political, religious (or a mix of all three) hatred in Europe…

  5. I have mentioned this before in a previous post, but for a truly deep and insightful understanding of the long-term historical, political, militaristic, economic and human precedents that drove Japan, I would again recommend reading David Bergamini’s “Japan’s Imperial Conspiracy” ( William Morrow & Son, 1971 ). Considerable detailed material in the book is dedicated to the Sino-Japanese conflicts, and Bergamini leaves no stone unturned in his quest for the truth that has eluded so many other historians.

    The author grew up in Japan completely immersed in the Japanese culture and language. He is therefore able to provide many very unique insights and perspectives into the political machinations of the Strike North and Strike South Factions ( as well as the manipulations of Emperor Hirohito’s Cabinet ) that racked Japan in the 1920’s and 1930’s and set her on the path to world war.

    Bergamini’s writing is both lucid and unflinching ; unusually for a book that covers such a wide spectrum encompassing the antecedents of history in great depth, he has managed to keep the humanistic and personal experiences of those who were there at ground level at the forefront.

    The book comes in two large volumes, so be prepared for a long but fascinating and ultimately horrifying read into some of the darkest chapters in Japanese history.

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