One of the problems with making films about holocausts, mass murders, and acts of genocide is one of scale. On the one hand, if you introduce a number of vivid characters, get your audience to like and relate to them, and then kill them all off, your audience is going to feel manipulated. But if you keep the characters more anonymous, who cares if they die? All you have by the end is a pile of bodies your audience thinks they ought to care about, but can’t quite manage.
“City of Life and Death,” which is about the 1937 Nanking massacre, when Japanese soldiers raped and murdered somewhere between 20,000 and 300,000 people, never quite masters the problem of scope. There are simultaneously too many characters and not enough; we are introduced to a bunch of people and try to follow their storylines, but aren’t given enough time with them before horrible things pile on in order to really be able to tell one family from another.
The rape of Nanking is a controversial and emotionally charged event in Asia, and credit Chinese filmmaker Lu Chuan for handling it with an even hand, showing the monstrosities committed by the Japanese without painting them as monsters. Or, at the very least, showing how they became monsters by committing monstrous acts, and not the other way around. The Chinese are horrified because they are being killed without rhyme or reason; the Japanese, at least some of them, are horrified that they’re killing without rhyme or reason.
There are some great sequences in “City of Life and Death.” But there are also long, confusing and convoluted sequences where you’re wondering who this is, where they came from, and why you should care about them. Generally, I would suggest watching a movie like this twice, to sort out all the characters and shorelines. But this is a film about a holocaust. Not the kind of thing you want to watch more than once.