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12 March 2010
Shelly Kraicer’s attack on Lu Chuan’s City of Life and Death in Cinema Scope # 41 is the most wrong-headed thing I’ve read in the magazine since some guy assured us that Miike Takashi’s Visitor Q was a validation of the nuclear family. Since the Japanese Right is currently trying to prevent Lu’s film from opening in Tokyo by any means possible – apparently with knock-on effects on the plans for distribution in North America and elsewhere – I’d like to offer an alternative perspective. I’m not going to take issue with Shelly’s faulty logic or clunky rhetoric – or even his bizarre enthusiasm for Li Ying’s self-confessed “love letter to Japanese militarism” Yasukuni – and his wide-eyed discovery that many narrative films are emotionally manipulative doesn’t seem worth discussing. I just want to rescue City of Life and Death from his willful misreadings, evasions and innuendos.
Let’s do it in bullet points for brevity:
• Shelly notes that there have been earlier films about the Nanjing massacres without saying what they are or how Lu’s film differs from them. With the exception of the sardonic Nanjing montage in Eddie Fong’s excellent Kawashima Yoshiko, every previous representation of Nanjing I’ve seen in Chinese movies has been execrable: crassly melodramatic, wallowing in victimhood, you name it. The first thing to say about Lu’s film is that it’s a corrective. Lu is the first Chinese filmmaker to try for a certain objectivity in representing Nanjing. He also tries for a certain intellectual equanimity, which doesn’t mean shying away from atrocities or the grief they provoke.
• Shelly claims that the film synthesizes “Spielbergian battle fetishization” with “heroic Chinese martyr cinema” and cites the character of KMT army officer Lu as a stereotypical hero/martyr. (Lu is played by Liu Ye, disparaged by Shelly as a “heartthrob”.) This completely misses the film’s irony. Lu is indeed framed in a number of ‘heroic’ compositions, in part because the character wants to see himself that way, but his struggle is shown to be hopeless from the get-go. He leads a makeshift band of under-armed resistance fighters which includes boys and old men, they are massively outnumbered and their ambush of a Japanese advance guard is ultimately futile. After his inevitable capture, Lu determines to be a good example to the other prisoners by putting on a brave face as he goes to his execution. But we don’t see his actual death, and he ends up as one more undifferentiated corpse on a pile of hundreds until someone later comes by and mercifully closes its staring eyes. And he’s dead and gone within 45 minutes of the start of the movie. Ever heard of bathos, Shelly? Liu Ye’s near-wordless performance, incidentally, is typically fine and strikes me as capturing an outward show of bravura with an underlying despair very expertly.
• Shelly assures us that much of the action is seen through the eyes of the Japanese sergeant Kadokawa, and that we are meant to identify with him. The first assertion is plain wrong, and the second is mystifying: why would anyone identify with an immature, virginal dreamer who ejaculates prematurely the first time he puts on a condom and then decides that the kindly ‘comfort woman’ Yuriko will someday be his wife? In Shelly’s version, “the film’s focus shifts early on” to Kadokawa. In the film Lu Chuan actually made, Kadokawa is the first and last-but-one person seen on screen, lost in his daydreams on both occasions. At the end, as he sits in a wooden bathtub, he imagines freeing two Chinese prisoners and then shooting himself in the head. Shelly may identify with a character like this, but I’m guessing he’s in a minority.
• When Shelly tries to patronize Lu Chuan by saying that his previous film Kekexili: Mountain Patrol “shows an incipient political consciousness”, the words “glasshouse” and “stones” somehow come to mind. Shelly charges City of Life and Death with being, covertly, a soft-propaganda film, somehow promoting the attitudes or policies of one faction in China’s leadership. But how exactly does this mesh with the five-year struggle to get the film made? (It was originally supposed to come out on the anniversary of the massacre, in 2007, but finally arrived two years late.) Or with Lu Chuan’s own account, which is that he naively set out in 2005 to make a gung-ho war movie and found his ideas “turned inside-out” during the two years he spent researching it? Where is the evidence that the film was made hand-in-glove with politicians of any stripe? I think we should be told.
• Shelly has nothing but praise for Lu Chuan’s “confidence with contemporary film technology” and his “evident fluency with image-making”, but damns these qualities because the film is not self-reflexive in the way that Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line supposedly is. We’re told that Lu Chuan “pivots” from the “battle fetishization” of Saving Private Ryan to the symbolic redemption of Schindler’s List in an attempt to impose the Nanjing massacres as China’s Holocaust. Shelly doesn’t say so explicitly, but he apparently thinks the names “Spielberg” and “Hollywood” are synonyms, and that Lu Chuan is guilty of following Spielberg in bludgeoning a completely passive audience into accepting ideology as “history”. I wouldn’t wish to put too fine a point upon it, but this is horseshit. City of Life and Death in fact goes out of its way to avoid portentousness, and its ‘floating’ structure – focusing intermittently on a handful of protagonists while constantly returning to the bigger picture – makes it completely unlike any Hollywood film ever made. (It is, though, quite similar to Lu Chuan’s earlier Kekexili, which also plays out a series of tactical gains and losses and wastes no time on trying to give its characters ‘psychological depth’.) The film’s repeated, rhythmic montages of the faces of undifferentiated onlookers, all serving to broaden that ‘bigger picture’, are actually more redolent of Soviet montage experiments of the 1920s than of anything in American cinema, including pro-communist films like Lewis Milestone’s North Star. Homework for Shelly: watch Don Siegel’s Hell is for Heroes and the reconstruction of Sam Fuller’s original cut of The Big Red One, and then pontificate about the way that Hollywood represents war.
• The notion that the recent hit The Founding of a Republic (unlike Lu Chuan’s film) has a quality of “genius” because it’s made with a knowing sense of kitsch seems to me contemptible. At the very least it represents an abandonment of critical integrity. It reminds me of the way that professional China-watchers like Geremie Barme used to wallow in the “revolutionary kitsch” of Cultural Revolution movies – until, of course, they found it more politic to remember the huge human cost of Mao and the Gang of Four’s political putsch.
• As a long-term resident of Beijing, Shelly may have noticed that China’s unelected leadership (so sensitive to the least whisper of criticism) decided some years ago to stop pushing Maoist/communist slogans to legitimate its rule and decided instead to promote a strong nationalist consciousness. All factions of the leadership do it, including president Wen Jiabao’s and premier Hu Jintao’s. We saw the fruits of their endeavors in the behavior of Chinese students overseas when they beat up pro-Tibet and pro-Xinjiang protestors during the international tour of the Olympic torch. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Shelly that the hostility to City of Life and Death in China – after its initial enormous success with the public – might have something to do with its refusal to bow to this neo-nationalist tide. Nobody watching City of Life and Death could seriously interpret it as being pro-Japanese; the film shows Japanese soldiers committing numerous war-crimes, and does so without sensationalism and without finding any vicarious pleasure in the spectacle. But Lu’s decision to make one of his recurring protagonists a naïve Japanese sergeant effectively defuses the nationalist thrust found in earlier films about the massacres, such as Wu Ziniu’s unspeakable Don’t Cry Nanjing. In attacking Lu’s film, Shelly seems to be reaching for solidarity with his nationalist friends in Chinese film circles. My view is that the film deserves to be defended from their fatuous and dishonest attacks.