Lu Chuan, City Of Life And Death
When Lu Chuan’s City of Life and Death won the top prize at the San Sebastián Film Festival two years ago, it was a testament not only to the emotional resonance and technical mastery of his widescreen black-and-white epic, which dramatizes the infamous 1937 Nanjing massacre at the height of the Second Sino-Japanese War, but a tacit acknowledgment of the film’s daring revisionist ambitions. A graduate of the Beijing Film Academy, Lu had previously directed a small-scale crime thriller, Missing Gun, and the critically well received Kekexili, Mountain Patrol, a rural drama about efforts to stop antelope poachers that screened at Sundance and won the Grand Jury Prize at the Tokyo Film Festival. But the latest film by this talented 40-year-old writer-director, the result of years of research and toil, has a depth of feeling that far surpasses his previous efforts.
While previous homegrown films about the massacre (Dont’ Cry Nanjing comes to mind) have mythologized the incident, framing it in crassly melodramatic terms that speak more to patriotic ideology than to the messy, morally complicated realities of war, City of Life and Death unfolds on a monumental scale, detailing the assault on the village, the systematic mass killings of civilians by Japanese soldiers, and the establishment of a safety zone for refugees, all seen through the eyes of those stationed or held captive within the capital city. Our focus drifts from a band of exhausted and outnumbered Chinese defenders led by Lu (Liu Ye) to the efforts of German businessman John Rabe (John Paisley) and his secretary Mr. Tang (Fan Wei) to protect the survivors. When the conquering army violates the refugee zone and begins a campaign of sexual assault, we are privy to the efforts of a schoolteacher, Ms. Jiang (Gao Yuanyuan), and Tang’s pregnant wife (Qin Lan) to save themselves, their families, and other women from further harm. Lu’s boldest move is to establish the perspective of Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi), a naive and homesick Imperial Army soldier scarred by the brutality he witnesses, a broad-minded humanistic gesture that was deeply controversial in China, where the enduring story of Nanjing victimhood is sacrosanct and neo-nationalistic pride is rarely challenged. City of Life and Death, which Lu based partly on his readings of letters and diaries (an interstitial framing device for the film), as well as interviews with surviving Japanese soldiers, at times evokes Kurosawa and the early Soviet filmmakers (especially in the achingly masterful montage sequences), at others harkens to the gritty ironies of Apocalypse Now (Lu’s master’s thesis was on Coppola) and Sam Fuller’s The Steel Helmet.
Filmmaker spoke with Lu Chuan about Chinese films, truth and history, and how war twists human nature. City of Life and Death opens today at Film Forum.
Filmmaker: As a narrative filmmaker, how would you describe your relationship to history? Is it your job to reach for fact or truth?
Lu: In China, I think the biggest problem is truth in history. This question is very important, because the truth of history is always twisted. We didn’t receive correct education about history. So for a filmmaker, it’s our responsibility to show something true to the audience, to awaken the younger generation, sometimes even to provoke, especially in China.
Filmmaker: Do you think it’s possible to recapture the past in a film?
Lu: My first job is to recreate a sense of reality in the theater. It’s very important for me. As a film director, I should help the audience believe what they see on the big screen. I want to deliver my message from behind the screen, though. I don’t want the audience to be aware that the director is speaking. I want them to feel they’re watching a part of history, or the true human spirit. That’s enough for me.
Filmmaker: How did you hope to distinguish City of Life and Death from previous movies about the Nanjing massacre?
Lu: I saw many films about massacres, like Schindler’s List, which is a masterpiece. I love this movie. It inspired me to be become a filmmaker. I saw it six times! [Laughs] Of course, each filmmaker wants to make his own history. I don’t know what the difference is — for me, the closer to the truth, the better. When you’re making a movie, you have to compromise [and bend] to the producers, to the so-called market. You have to make a happy ending, so little by little your movie starts to lose power, to lose the depths of its exploration. When I made City of Life and Death, I refused to surrender to all those pressures. I just wanted to say something that was true to my heart. Schindler’s List is perfect, but I think the end of the film is not as powerful as the beginning, you know? It’s a commercial movie, it caters to the taste of the audience. History is not so easy to explain. When I set out to make City of Life and Death, I gave myself notice not to cater to the taste of the audience. The Nanjing massacre has a special place in our history, so I wanted to make something real, to help [the audience] realize what is true.
Filmmaker: So you didn’t want to make the Chinese Schindler’s List, as you’ve said before. But it’s interesting because a lot of viewers have compared it to another Spielberg film, Saving Private Ryan, since the action sequences that open the film are so visceral — we feel the impact as an audience. In the end, though, City of Life and Death is not so much an accurate account of real-life events as it is a portrait of human nature.
Lu: I totally agree with that.
Filmmaker: It must have taken some courage to write from the perspective of the Japanese soldier Kadokawa, considering how potentially inflammatory it might be. Did you have anxiety about that?
Lu: In my first draft, Kadokawa is not the captor, he’s just a normal Japanese soldier. He’s brutal and a typical killer who slaughters many people. But I spent two years analyzing the history of the massacre and collecting all kinds of materials. In China, most people hate the Japanese because we received hatred education since we were very young, in history lessons and textbooks [that say] the Japanese people are animals who killed our people. I went to Tokyo two times and interviewed many older soldiers. I bought some of the diaries of those soldiers and got help from one of my Chinese friends, who’s very rich and has established 28 museums in Sichuan province. One of those is about the Sino-Japanese war, so he gave me lots of materials about Japanese soldiers. I spent months reading them.
Filmmaker: What did these wartime relics tell you?
Lu: Reading those letters and diaries, I found I was reading letters written by a person who’s just like us — they were in love with some girl, they have parents, they were homesick. I felt so surprised. They were husbands, sons, fathers. I started to consider one question: Why is there war? I wanted to make a movie about the Nanjing massacre, but then I started to explore the history of massacres, during the Ming and Qing dynasties, and learned they happened everywhere. It’s not something that belongs to Japanese people. So I decided to [articulate] this kind of feeling in my movie. I don’t want my son or daughter, younger brother or sister to look at the Japanese [in the] way [we did]. It’s not true. The massacre was in 1937. After 70 years, we have to reconsider it from a different angle. The Japanese troops were criminal — but the biggest criminal was the war itself. It twisted human nature. It pushed normal people to pull the trigger. I was in the army for several years, you know. I know if I was in uniform on the battlefield, I would pull the trigger on strangers if the [military] authorities asked me to. So what’s the nature of war? Why does it make us become so desperate, so helpless? At that stage, I became aware that I was making a film about the truth of all wars and massacres. I rewrote the script many times.
Filmmaker: Mounting City of Life and Death was a massive undertaking, with hundreds of actors and complicated sequences to coordinate, from the siege to the imperial celebratory parade that closes the film. What did you learn about filmmaking throughout this process?
Lu: Before I made this film, I made only two comparatively small movies, so I lacked experience. But sometimes when you don’t have experience, you have the guts to do anything you want. I’m a little ambitious, you know! [Laughs] I saw many war movies, good movies, but I didn’t think they looked so real. I analyzed a lot of documentaries, especially those shot by Japanese and Chinese directors. They gave me a lot of inspiration, details like the clothes of that era, and how people looked — the feeling of people in that time. I asked all my patterners, like the art designer, to watch and we analyzed them little by little for details — like how many people had no hair, for instance. We saw many battlefield documentaries and analyzed the color of smoke and the size of tanks. We bought materials from Japan, so we had the [dimensions] and detailed blueprints. We rebuilt seven tanks. We even hired a Japanese military officer to train my actors and extras, so they would give the movie a lot of fresh feeling. What I learned is that to make a movie good you have to spend endless energy to take care of all the elements which will appear onscreen. It’s exhausting work. [Laughs] But also exciting.
Filmmaker: How did shooting the film in black and white help you convey that sense of realism?
Lu: I believe every filmmaker wants to make a black-and-white movie. [Laughs] It’s a luxury. Not so many people can achieve this dream because the producer will kill you — they think a black-and-white movie will never make money. This time I tried to convince them. It was the only choice for me because I saw many historical pictures, many documentaries that were [shot in] black and white — they were so powerful. I believed it could help an audience to understand the past, to believe the past. I’m dealing with a lot of blood — I hate the color of blood. I don’t want to make the audience uncomfortable by the natural color of blood, it’s useless. When it’s black, it shows more respect for the victims, to the people who died in the battle. I spent a lot of time convincing my producer of that. We’re lucky — he accepted my suggestion.
Filmmaker: You’ve said you feel a strong sense of connection to the Fifth Generation filmmakers.
Lu: Yes. When I was very young, I saw some of their masterpieces, like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige’s early work. They burned the dream in my heart of being a director.
Filmmaker: What kinds of films did you watch growing up in Beijing, apart from these?
Lu: I should give thanks to my mother because she managed a government cinema, so I had a chance to see a lot of foreign movies when I was young. Most of them I couldn’t understand. From age six or seven, I was like a thief. Each Wednesday or Saturday the cinema had a secret screening [of] foreign movies from Japan or the U.S. just for leading officials. At the time, ordinary people had no chance to see foreign movies, only Chinese movies, but my mother’s cinema always showed them. When the cinema darkened, she’d let me in — without a ticket. [Laughs] One I remember deeply is Kurosawa’s Rashomon. When I saw this film, I was so shocked, because the bad guy kisses the wife of the samurai. And the wife enjoyed it! I thought, She should kill the guy! It played in my brain over and over, but later on I felt its truth, how true to life [it was]. People are not bad or good, they’re pushed by desire, they’re slaves to it. Good people are those who can sacrifice their desire to help others.