Sometimes it really is necessary to read Chinese movies through a political prism. Often this is a lazy, worn interpretive strategy that too easily reduces complex, allusive art to manifestos of resistance: Lou Ye’s Spring Fever, “banned in China!!!”, is a film opposing Beijing’s dictators, goes the most recent version on this week’s AP wire but examples abound. But in the case of military blockbusters like Lu Chuan’s City of Life and Death, a little more attention paid to ideology would be helpful. Hailed by many reviewers and festivals in the west as the great new Chinese film, it picked up the Golden Shell at the San Sebastian Film Festival this fall and will be distributed in North America by National Geographic Movies. A huge box-office hit in China, the film at the same time has been reviled by many Chinese audience members, directors, and critics as either (take your pick from any point on several spectrums) an act of intolerable anti-Chinese treason, a pro-government tract, or a hack work of mainstream entertainment.
City of Life and Death (Nanjing! Nanjing! is the Chinese title) is one of a number of post Cultural Revolution films to depict the 1937-1938 Nanjing Massacre (also known as the Rape of Nanjing), when occupying Japanese troops overran the then-capital of the Republic of China and proceeded to burn and loot the city, and rape and slaughter approximately 200,000 civilians and Chinese prisoners of war. This event remains fraught with controversy. Influential conservative sectors of Japanese society continue to deny or minimize the crimes, whereas for the vast majority of Chinese citizens, the Nanjing Massacre remains an open wound, and periodically is exploited by the government when patriotic mobilization against Japan suits government policy. If you visit Nanjing like I did two years ago, it won’t be long before you hear a casual acquaintance aver that he or she straight up “hates the Japanese.” The Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall was in fact closed when I was there during the 50th anniversary of the event, for an extended “reorganization”; the official line on the massacre, ever volatile, was, at that moment, too sensitive to articulate in a state museum.
Lu Chuan’s first two features had a certain level of success in China and abroad, both in festivals and theatrical release. His debut, The Missing Gun (2002), is a robust, commercial black comedy about a small-town policeman (played by Jiang Wen) who loses his weapon and becomes a murder suspect. Kekexili: Mountain Patrol (2004), an award-winning environmental drama about poachers of rare antelope in China’s northwest (that was likewise bought for distribution by National Geographic), shows an incipient political consciousness, though one limited by an outsider’s patronizing point of view.
Lu Chuan charged into the minefield of Nanjing Massacre commentary with all his cinematic guns blazing. But what is the film’s agenda? Is it propaganda or anti-propaganda? If it is propaganda, then what makes it unique? How does it position itself in this highly electrified political field, crowded from every side by powerfully invested, incompatible interests: xenophobia, patriotism, Party rule, and humanism?
Mainland Chinese cinema discourse prefers the term zhuxuanlu film to propaganda film. The term zhuxuanlu is not simple: it literally means “main melody,” and is sometimes translated as “leitmotif” film. (“Propaganda” is more blunt, but that misses some of the nuance, and has overly derogatory associations.) These films are made to reinforce positive values that are established and endorsed by the government: in other words, the main line. They educate viewers, or to put it less politely, enforce a political policy. In a completely state-controlled film system like China’s, all films that pass censorship and can be released in commercial theatres are to a certain extent state-endorsed. But zhuxuanlu films are expressly designed to reinforce a specific issue: these days it’s often environmental protection, earthquake disaster recovery, or education reform.
The more traditional kind of zhuxuanlu films, ennobling Party leaders, great battles, and revolutionary martyrs, are still made, mostly as vestiges of a waning state film production system. Crude, old-fashioned films of this type are easy to identify and have limited effectiveness: they come across today as political fantasies, charmingly old-fashioned and already irrelevant. But a sophisticated, post-zhuxuanlu movie can be subtler, negotiating within the genre’s rules a more audience-appealing version of whatever party line is being sold. Like all entertainment culture—see Hollywood—selling an ideology is still what it’s all about.
A look at City of Life and Death’s genre and narrative strategies can demonstrate its importance in helping to establish what I’d like to call a nascent post-zhuxuanlu cinema. It is a full-out war epic, massively budgeted and vast in ambition. Huge sets of devastated Nanjing were built, and thousands of extras mobilized to illustrate the battle scenes that open the film. Lu films his striking set pieces in a beautifully modulated black and white, where cinematography, art direction, staging, music, and sound design all conspire to create massive, intentionally overwhelming images of violence, horror, and devastation.
The film’s structure, though, seems oddly schizophrenic: the opening sections depict, with vigour and admirable clarity, skirmishes surrounding the Imperial Japanese Army’s attack on Nanjing, its entry into the city, and the resistance it encountered by a heroic band of Nationalist Chinese soldiers. These scenes are handled with formal panache, but stay well within a hybrid style derived from (1) Spielbergian Saving Private Ryan¬¬-style (1998) battle fetishization, making chaotic, unimaginable violence accessible to a mass market by giving “realism” for an audience that largely has no idea what a war looks like; and (2) heroic Chinese martyr cinema, producing larger-than life heroic types (in this case box-office star and local heartthrob Liu Ye) who encapsulate a standard set of virtues and who die violently to save the nation. In fact, all that’s missing to make this section snap into place as an old-style propaganda epic is the explicit identification of Liu Ye as a Communist cadre, inspiring and leading the soldiering masses to acts of national salvation or martyrdom.
Once the film switches to the depiction of the various stages of the massacre proper, the function of the battle section becomes clearer. Lu Chuan’s film has a larger purpose in mind: it attempts to depict not only what really happened, but also tries to direct us to understand how it happened. To that end, the film’s focus shifts early on to a representative Japanese soldier, the “everyman” Kadokawa (Nakaizumi Hideo), through whose eyes much of the action is seen, and with whom the audience is meant to identify. Although a participant in the attack and the subsequent massacre, Kadokawa is more a helpless, horrified onlooker than an active instigator. What makes this extraordinary is the fact that the object of identification is a potential war criminal on the Japanese side, and not one of the many Chinese victims.
The film proposes a schema of intensifying criminality to try to “explain” the massacre. Japanese soldiers are ambushed by Chinese troops within the city, and fight back in self-defense. When the Japanese troops (including Kadokawa) stumble on a church full of refugees, they at first identify the Chinese troops hiding amongst civilians and attempt to separate them. The first civilians are massacred almost by accident, hiding in a confessional booth in the church and blindly shot at by a nervous Kadokawa. Later, mass scenes of the slaughter of Chinese captured soldiers are shown (they are buried, shot, burned). A war crime, to be sure, but directed against (former) combatants. Kadokawa then sees the first signs of random killings of civilians; only afterwards does the organized rape of Chinese women begin. Most dramatically, the film stages the organized selection within the Safety Zone of women “volunteers” to be raped, most often to death, by Japanese Imperial soldiers.
Yet all this amounts to illustration rather than explanation: the “how” is still missing (for this, see Chinese director Li Ying’s brilliant and controversial 2007 documentary Yasukuni). The massacre is conceptualized as a massive disaster—almost like a force of nature—visited on the helpless Chinese civilians. The victims themselves are largely undifferentiated: the “Chinese masses” are indeed shown in cinematic terms as crowds, or as faces picked out from the crowd. Only a very few are individuated: i.e., played by local stars. Gao Yuanyuan is an heroic woman leader in the Safety Zone, and Fan Wei a translator whose desire to protect his family leads him to betray his fellow Chinese. The latter’s redemptive moment occurs at that most dramatic staple of concentration camp/military border movies, the passage through the checkpoint under the malevolent authority, where loved ones are virtually torn from the self-sacrificing hero’s arms.
This scene gives us a clue to the film’s agenda, and to its underlying functional principles. You might call it Lu Chuan’s second Spielbergian gesture: the film attempts to pivot from Saving Private Ryan to Schindler’s List (1993). What we see developing before our eyes is perhaps China’s first Holocaust epic. But an epic in which history is shaped and falsified to fit into the mold of mass entertainment. This is, like its model Schindler’s List, a solemn, weighty, message movie, in which cinematic images of great suffering are mobilized in the service of ideology. The “never again” slogan of Holocaust remembrance is thus transferred via Lu’s film to Nanjing.
City of Life and Death’s “never again” resonates with a long and painful history of Chinese humiliation and subjugation. The Nanjing Massacre is the emblematic incident of the history of 19th and 20th century foreign oppression of China that ended with the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. One of the pillars of the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) rule is precisely its liberation of the Chinese people, and specifically their liberation from foreign domination and oppression (a subsequent basis for the legitimacy of CCP rule was added in the post-Deng Xiaoping era, and consists of a promise of stability and increased prosperity for the majority of Chinese). There will be no more Nanjing massacres under the rule of the CCP. It is in fact the power of the current Chinese State and Party that guarantees the Chinese people that there will be no more such horrors. Like any one-party state though, absent democratic institutions, the legitimacy question is constantly at issue, and therefore needs constantly to be reinforced. There’s not much room for deviation in official cultural discourse. Films (and other forms of culture) that repeat and reinforce the horrors of the past, that masochistically spectacularize Chinese suffering and safely locate it in the pre-1949 era, are more politically necessary now than ever.
This might explain City of Life and Death’s authoritative, self-restrained images. The film’s visual scheme is both a declaration of monumental solemnity and importance, and an implicit assertion that what we are seeing is somehow immediately linked to reality (via the black and white of early cinéma vérité, Italian neo-realist masterpieces, archival inserts, and of Schindler’s List itself). Rather than grappling with the crucial issue of how a horror like the Holocaust or the Nanjing Massacre can be captured by wholly incommensurate narrative film techniques (for that, the locus classicus is Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinéma), the film forcefully asserts that movies are somehow adequate to the representation of genocide. You have to take it or leave it, and Lu Chuan’s totalitarian film language leaves you little choice. There is no space for reflection or negotiation, only one point for the viewer to occupy, and one possible trail of intellectual and emotional reaction that the film maps out with ruthless precision.
The whole-scale borrowing of Holocaust film tropes underlines the film’s ostentatious humanism, upping the symbolic ante to a level that forecloses anything but the most emotional of reactions. Actual critical humanism would energize and challenge the viewer, problematizing the relationship of mythologized movie history and true history. It would expose the gap between the two. Unlike a film such as The Thin Red Line (1998), City of Life and Death hides the gap and insists that the movie version is real, that what it shows is history. This is not history—it is ideology. Ideology that pins down the viewer, shuts down thought, and demands total emotional submission. Lu Chuan’s film seeks to determine an audience’s response to an issue of fundamental political importance, and determines it in a way entirely consonant with (at least one of) the current Communist Party line(s), precisely what typical Chinese zhuxuanlu and post-zhuxuanlu films do.
Lu modifies the formula in a fascinating and unique manner. He dresses the film’s message in the most modern, up-to-date cinematic skin, deploying his evident fluency with image-making; his ability to organize large-scale cinematic resources to achieve pointed emotional effects; and his confidence with contemporary film technology. Far from creating a “hard” propaganda film with stock Japanese monstrous villains and nobly suffering Chinese victims (plus the usual snivelling Chinese traitor to reinforce “healthy” patriotic paranoia), City of Life and Death does the opposite. Its Japanese hero is a man with a conscience who undergoes a moral education while fighting for an evil cause. Its Chinese traitor lives in a moral grey area and is offered a Hollywood-style redemptive ending. Such changes, while leaving undisturbed the fundamental underpinnings of the zhuxuanlu film, recast it in a liberal-humanist mode. The prevailing message is that crude patriotism (“we hate the Japanese, period”) is out; tolerant recognition of the potential humanity of even so-called enemies (and, conveniently, current international allies) is in.
The ferocious backlash against the film within China comes from these changes to the zhuxuanlu formula. Online commentary, always overheated, has wildly attacked Lu for making an anti-patriotic, pro-Japanese film. Although the film was a huge commercial success, with over 100 million RMB in box office (the threshold for blockbuster status in China’s film market), the director asserts that the film has been effectively “banned” by the Chinese authorities—although “frozen” might be a better term. It failed to make the official list of films promoted to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the PRC, and was completely shut out of the official Chinese Huabiao Awards, with the nominations for the film being pulled from contention a week before the awards ceremony.
The split in the Chinese reaction to the film also parallels a real cleavage present in the ruling ideologies of China’s leadership. Abstracted from its historical details, City of Life and Death reads almost as a manifesto for the so-called liberal-humanist wing of the CCP, incarnated in its symbolic leader Premier Wen Jiabao (number two in the Party hierarchy under President Hu Jintao). “Uncle Wen” presents the humane, compassionate face of the Party rule, and because of this is genuinely popular. City of Life and Death’s ideological agenda is nicely in tune with the more rational, modern, liberalizing factions in the CCP that Wen represents. This may help to explain both the film’s initial success and its subsequent fall into official disfavour. As more hard-line factions within the party, less inclined to support the leadership’s liberalizing tendencies, were unsettled by City of Life and Death’s popular success, the backlash began, reducing its profile and ensuring that it received no further official support.
I am by no means averse to all zhuxuanlu cinema, just to the kind that pretends it’s something else. The most honest zhuxuanlu film of 2009 is the year’s other Chinese blockbuster hit, The Founding of a Republic. The all time Chinese box-office champion—beating the previous leaders Titanic (1997) and Transformers (2007)—was co-directed by government film mogul Han Sanping and former fifth-generation director Huang Jianxin. It’s an out-and-out propaganda film, and wears its main melody on its sleeve. Depicting the negotiations (and some battles) that lead from the Japanese surrender in 1945 to the founding of the People’s Republic on October 1st, 1949, the film offers a veritable parade of CCP heroes and their Kuomintang adversaries. But this is not just another stiff dramatization of Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai outwitting and outfighting Chiang Kai-shek and his corrupt cronies, even if that line constitutes the film’s main plot.
The film’s genius is in its utterly superfluous but brilliantly successful casting stroke: The director/producers lined up just about every movie star in the Chinese and Hong Kong firmament to appear in the film (over 50 stars I could recognize, and doubtless many I couldn’t), including cameos by the likes of Jackie Chan, Zhang Ziyi, and Andy Lau. Chinese audiences thus flooded theatres to see an historical drama about dull political negotiations. More to the point, the parade of stars constantly induces a critical distance in the viewer’s mind and plays with it (“Can that be Donnie Yen? “That looks like Jet Li!”). It’s not history, nor does it pretend to be. The film treats its audience to a series of knowing winks, a delightful conspiracy of consensual entertainment. It’s pure Party line and the audience is in on the joke. No one is pretending that what we are seeing is real: not the film, and not the audience. I can’t think of a more delightfully honest way to celebrate the gap between movie illusion and reality. Which is precisely what City of Life and Death, with all its technological mastery, refuses to admit. In true Hollywood fashion, it substitutes spectacle for thought, mythology for history, and ideology for reality.