Posted by: asianfilmreviews | June 7, 2009

Nanjing! Nanjing! (2009)

Nanjing! Nanjing!

Nanjing! Nanjing!南京! 南京!

Director: Lu Chuan (陆川)

Cast: Liu Ye (刘烨), Gao Yuanyuan (高圆圆), Hideo Nakaizumi (中泉英雄), Fan Wei (范伟), John Paisley

From the unabashed entertainment of A Chinese Ghost Story to the horrific nature of this next update here, I am left with intense feelings after watching Lu Chuan’s Nanjing! Nanjing! (aka, City of Life and Death). More than a mere anti-war statement, the film is not only a condemnation of war but also a powerful depiction of human evils and determination. In that sense, it’s very Kurosawa-esque in its themes, but in a less presentational manner. The performances are excellent and production values are top notch, but the content will no doubt stir up resentment and anger in some viewers. Lu Chuan, however, once again shows why he is one of China’s best directors. He balances the material not so much in documentary fashion like The Longest Day or Tora! Tora! Tora!, but in a much more emotional sense. Perspectives from Japanese soldiers, Chinese resistance, and safe zone refugees sympathetically highlight strengths weaknesses of each and every character as events unfold. As such, this is not so much a narratively driven film as it is about the characters and the horrific event itself, which Lu Chuan magically avoids sensationalizing for spectacle’s sake. And yet, despite my admiration for the film and all that the filmmakers achieved, Nanjing! Nanjing! is probably a film I will not watch again in the near future.

Conflicting accounts of how many people were killed or raped are pointless because everyone agrees that human beings were indeed killed and raped in 1937 when the Imperial Japanese Army invaded and brutally secured the city of Nanjing, then the capital of the Republic of China, in an event that came to known as The Rape of Nanjing. The film begins with the Chinese military, fractured and downright scared by the impending invasion, wanting to leave the city. Many did, but those that stayed ultimately proved to be a minor stumbling block for the Japanese forces. Led by Liu Ye, the plight of the Chinese resistance occupies the first third of the film and is integral in establishing the tone of and setting the stage for the rest of the film. Check out the following clip to get a sense of what to expect from the opening action scenes (note: due to some of the violence in this clip, you must verify your age before viewing):

As you can see, the action is reminiscent of modern war films such as Saving Private Ryan and Taegukgi (태극기 휘날리며). It’s competently done, avoids the trappings of overusing shaky cam footage, and is very effective. However, those expecting a traditional, action-filled war film may find themselves disappointed, because there is comparatively little gunplay compared with the above mentioned films. What follows instead is a series of devastating dramatic events involving the refugees from the Japanese occupation of Nanjing. Set up in a Safety Zone by businessman and Nazi Party member John Rabe (John Paisley), the refugees are not exactly safe. They endure raids by Japanese soldiers looking for remnants of the Chinese military, they are harassed and tormented, and thousands of women are raped and killed. It is the latter which, for me, makes this a damned uncomfortable film to watch. The incidents are well documented by real life figure Rabe and others who witnessed the aftermath of brutal sexual assaults on countless women, from the incredibly young to the elderly, and it was this military culture of rape that continue to stir up anti-Japanese sentiment among Chinese and Korean people to this day. Now I personally find rape to be one of the most abhorrent acts that one human being can do to another. Any man who must force himself upon a woman to satisfy his own sexual desires is no man. But rather than take sides, I want to focus on the use of sexual assaults within the plot.

Anyone who doubted that Lu Chuan would deliver a harrowing and sober experience with little sensationalism has either never seen his previous films or assumed that melodrama would overshadow the reality. He does not shy away from the horrible acts of the Japanese soldiers, but rather than depict graphic sex and let the visuals speak for themselves, the trauma is primarily emotional and psychological as seen on the faces of the women who were assaulted. In choosing this route, he is able to both avoid unnecessary sensationalism and can instead focus on the Chinese women who were assaulted as real human beings (rather than sex objects in the hands of a less skilled director) who suffered untold cruelty. It also allows for the director to show the determination and sacrifices of the people of Nanjing. In one particular scene, John Rabe tearfully announces that 100 women will be detained for three weeks to be used as comfort women for the increasingly restless Japanese soldiers. It’s emotionally devastating to say the least and very hard to watch, yet Lu gives it a sense of humanity and compassion as some very strong-willed women raise their hands and volunteer for the sake of other, more vulnerable women knowing full well they probably will not survive the three weeks.

This brings us to the contentious issue of Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi), the sympathetic Japanese soldier. Some may feel insulted by a Japanese soldier portrayed in a more positive light, but I don’t necessarily see him as representing the Japanese military – he represents that curious part of humanity that witnesses such atrocities without the will or ability to explicitly intervene. We see this conflict through his eyes, shocked by the horror of it all yet powerless to stop any of it. Consumed by guilt, Kadokawa closes out the film in a very logical manner – if we don’t understand and come to terms with the past, then we are doomed to repeat our mistakes. Make no mistake about it, this is a very powerful film, and one that is made all the better by the fantastic performances. Liu Ye is fiecely determined as a Chinese soldier. With so little dialogue, he is able to convey a great deal using just his face and body language. Likewise, Gao Yuanyuan and Fan Wei have some excellent moments as survivors in the Safety Zone. Gao Yuanyuan, in particular, embodies the will of the refugees in her endeavor to both survive and save the lives of others. It’s a shame that John Rabe was sort of sidelined compared to historical accounts of his heroism, but in the end, this film is about the tens of thousands of people who were raped and murdered and their will to survive.


  1. I know it’s a good one, but I still don’t want to watch this movie…..
    Life is short…don’t want to wast time on hatred.
    horrible dark side of human being…

  2. A very appropriate response, Peijuan. It is indeed a very good film. But it’s also a difficult movie to watch, and definitely not one to watch if you would rather avoid such horrible subject matter. I’ll try to add some happier movies, haha. 😉

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