Chuan Lu’s harrowing look at the massacre, subjugation and occupation of Nanking, China in 1937 by the Japanese on the eve of WWII is impressive on almost every level. It's startling from the first images, where city officials & much of the local military battle past their own defensive lines to flee the collapsing city. Early scenes focus on the ragtag holdovers who remain, falling back building by building against the onslaught. What follows are numbing war atrocities, even now under-examined in Japan, shown with an almost casual sense of their savagery. But in the midst of so much horror, Lu focuses as much as is possible on personal stories, finding traces of grace & humanity in unexpected places: A Japanese soldier sickened by his own involvement & actions; a German businessman* who uses his Nazi status as an ally to create a Safe Zone in the city, saving thousands before he is forced to leave; a prostitute who volunteers as a ‘comfort girl’ to the Japanese forces to save others. Stunningly shot in WideScreen b&w, with stately rhythms working against fierce episodes of violence & action (some quite heroic), the film is filled with compelling & unexpected moments of bravery and character development. Yet, fine as most of it is, it doesn’t quite connect emotionally. Only Lu’s third film, he doesn’t show the confidence to let the mess of reality into his tightly controlled compositions. So, even as we get a handle on the large cast, we also feel kept at a distance. Considering the 300,000 killed, perhaps not a bad thing.
DOUBLE-BILL: *This remarkable German businessman got his own bio-pic, JOHN RABE/’09. Alas, neither of these films got more than a token Stateside release; and less than that in Japan where the subject matter remains verboten, so to speak.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Note the Chinese poster (above right) which wants to sell this as some sort of Martial Arts Action Pic (and in color!). Difficult subject matter for the home crowd, too, but worth the effort.