Flowers of War (金陵十三钗) & City of Life and Death南京! 南京
Two films, one story
Zhang Yimou’s new film on the massacre in Nanjing, Flowers of War (金陵十三钗), is the second major Chinese production to hit international cinemas on this topic in the last few years, the other being Lu Chuan’s City of Life and Death (南京 南京). Having now seen both, I’ll try to compare and contrast them.
Both films are set during the early days of the Japanese conquest and occupation of Nanjing (南京) in 1937; Nanjing which was then the capital of the Republic of China. It was during this period that the Japanese committed the atrocities that were to become known as the “The Rape of Nanjing”. It is estimated that over 300,000 people were killed and thousands of women raped.
City of Life and Death(南京! 南京!) by Lu Chuan
Filmed in black and white, Lu Chuan’s film conveys all the horrors and brutality of the destruction of Nanjing and its people under the Japanese occupation. Grey scene after scene, tense, gripping, and harrowing scene after scene, the spectator is left numb by the cruelty meted out by the Japanese army. The scene where the Japanese machine guns kill off the Chinese prisoners of war is horrific; yet, it represents the true events that took place on December 18, 1937, on the banks of the Yangtze River.
Nonetheless, in spite of the gruesomeness of his film, Lu Chuan was heavily criticized in China for showing the human face of (some of) the Japanese. At the end of the film, the young Japanese soldier Kadokawa is overwhelmed and tortured by shame and remorse for what his fellow countrymen have been doing in Nanjing. Apparently, Kadokawa’s show of feeling contradicted the Chinese Government’s official version that each and every Japanese soldier in Nanjing was nothing less than an unrepentant and murderous rapist. Lu Chuan, apparently, even received death threats for having shown this side of the conflict. However, despite this one slight tilt towards showing some kind of Japanese humanism in Nanjing, I must admit that the Japanese still come out of this film looking pretty bad, for want of saying anything stronger.
On a personal note, I think the film was amazing. Showing us that even a Japanese soldier could be traumatized by the events in Nanjing, Lu Chuan was able to bring to the screen the true horrors of the Nanjing massacre, and thus help new generations to grasp the true extent of what really happened there.
Cinematographically, the scene where the Japanese carry out their victory dance in the ruined streets of Nanjing is one of the most powerful, terrifying and, at the same time, mesmerizing pieces of cinema I have seen.
Flowers of War (金陵十三钗) by Zhang Yimou
Same city, same story, but without the redeeming presence of any good Japanese soldiers. The film is based on the book of the same name by Geling Yan, the author of the wonderful “The Uninvited”.
There are many similarities between Zhang Yi Mou’s and Lu Chuan’s film. The brutally realistic battle scenes are reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s ‘Saving Private Ryan’; the heroes include Westerners ready to risk their own safety to help the Chinese in Nanjing. Women, especially prostitutes, show remarkable bravery and self-sacrifice in order to help their fellow citizens.
Yet, in comparison, Zhang’s film lacks something. One cannot question the quality of the production, or its visual attraction; in fact, it is quite spectacular. The acting is great as well; gorgeous young Ni Ni will undoubtedly become a great star, not only in China, but internationally as well. The story is exciting and vividly portrays Japanese atrocities in Nanjing. However, for me, Zhang played it too safe. He seemed content to follow the official (Chinese) line without ever introducing anything that might upset anyone; except the Japanese of course. I suppose that predictable is the word I would use.
Having said this, I can’t understand some of the reviews I’ve read, in which critics complained about sweet violins playing while young girls were dragged off to be raped… To be honest, I was too busy suffering with the victims to actually notice …
Undoubtedly, the best part of the film is the interesting interplay between the young convent girls and the group of prostitutes, forced by circumstances to share the same enclosed space inside the church.
Both films are worth seeing, but if had had to choose one, it would be Li Chuan’s City of Life and Death, for its stark originality and for showing us some of the most bone-chilling war scenes ever seen on the big screen.