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Film / City of Life and Death

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City of Life and Death (南京, 南京 or Nanjing, Nanjing back in China), is a 2010 film directed by Lu Chuan.

During the Second Sino-Japanese War, the Imperial Japanese Army lays siege to the city of Nanking, the capital of China at the time. When they destroy the Nationalist Chinese troops in a fierce battle, the city falls. The people of Nanking try to cope with life, even as their lives gradually become hell on earth. Shot in black-and-white entirely, most of the story follows Mrs. Jiang, a steely-eyed school teacher who is determined to protect her people from the invasion, Lu, a veteran Nationalist officer who leads an army remnant in street battles against all odds, and Kadokawa, a young and dreamy Japanese soldier who is torn between his hard-wired obedience to Imperial Japan and his own empathy for defenseless people.


This film was dangerously close to being Banned In China, because it humanized the Japanese. The director received lots of online death threats, and it would've been pulled from Chinese cinemas if not for the support of a Communist Party official, who was a huge fan.

Has been compared to Schindler's List, because of big similarities. Only this one is even more depressing...

This Film Contains Examples Of:

  • Anyone Can Die
  • Apologetic Attacker: John Rabe, when he is forced to announce that the female refugees are to serve the Japanese Troops as sex slaves.
  • The Atoner: Kadokawa, "atoning" for the actions of the entire army he is a part of.
  • Badass Pacifist: John Rabe. It's one thing to stand up to an armed mob of blood-crazed soldiers when you're an ass-kicker extraordinaire. It's a whole other thing when you're an old man who can't even speak their language, armed only with his iron determination. (Although it does help that he's a Nazi.)
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  • Bittersweet Ending: With the exception of the Westerners, almost every sympathetic character is dead by the end. Except for Lu and Xiao, who are freed by Kodokawa at the end.
  • Boom, Headshot!: How Mrs. Jiang dies.
  • Break the Cutie: Any character with a shred of innocence. Xiaojiang Ms. Jiang May, all the girls raped (this is the Rape of Nanking, after all).
  • Broken Bird: Several women are broken.
  • But Not Too Evil: Or rather, Not Evil Enough. The film was nearly Banned In China for being too sympathetic to the Japanese, believe it or not.
  • Child Soldiers: The 10-year-old Xiao. Thanks to Kadokawa, he survives to the present time the film was made.
  • Cloud Cuckoo Lander: Kadokawa.
  • Les Collaborateurs: Rabe collaborates with the Japanese authorities, albeit very reluctantly. The eager-to-please Mr. Tang also does it, until the day they throw his little daughter from a window, just for laughs.
  • Composite Character: The movie's Japanese characters are composites of historical figures from the real-life Nanking Massacre, with fictional names, while Commander Ida is a stand-in for Prince Asaka.
  • Death of a Child: With Extreme Prejudice. Several schoolgirls are raped, the children hiding in a confessional are gunned down, and Tang's daughter is flung out of a window.
  • Defrosting Ice Queen: Mrs. Jiang.
  • Deliberately Monochrome
  • Despair Event Horizon: Oh, where to begin? Notably, Kadokawa commits suicide out of guilt.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Mrs. Jiang gets it, when she lies to Commander Ida that Zhao is her husband and Xiao her son, to save him from certain death. It doesn't work for her. But with him it's averted, when Kadokawa sets him free. Played straight when Tang's daughter, five years old, starts hitting the soldiers who are arresting her dad. They throw her from a window.
  • Doomed Moral Victor: Mr. Tang, who is defiant in the end. Before his execution, he informs Commander Ida that his pregnant wife got away from the city safely, and Ida can't do shit about it.
  • Downer Ending: Also Downer Beginning, Downer Middle, Downer's the Rape of Nanking - of course it's a one-note symphony.
  • Driven to Suicide: Kadokawa.
  • Ensemble Cast: Lu, Mrs. Jiang, Mr. Tang, and Kadokawa could all be considered protagonists.
  • Everyone Has Standards: John Rabe. He may be a member of the Nazi party, but he is horrified by the Japanese armies ruthless treatment of the Chinese and does everything in his power to save as many refugees as he can.
  • Fan Disservice: Graphic nudity is shown, but it's of the women being horrifically raped. Also, the human heads strung up on trees.
  • Fate Worse than Death: This is what would've happened to Mrs. Jiang in the end, after she lies to the Japanese in order to save Zhao's and Xiao's lives. As she is dragged away, she just looks at Kadokawa and quietly pleads for him to shoot her. And he does.
  • For the Evulz: The Japanese soldiers.
  • Heroic BSoD: Tang, after his five-year-old daughter is flung from a window to her death in front of him. It leads to his change of heart regarding his collaboration.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: The one hundred women who volunteer as comfort women. They do it under threat of the Japanese destroying the refugee camp.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Yuriko.
  • IKEA Erotica: A rare movie example: the scene where Kadokawa has sex with Yuriko. The sex is dispassionate, in the missionary position, and dead silent, but for the loud creaking noises from the bed.
  • Jitter Cam: Used during the chaotic Urban Warfare scenes.
  • Karma Houdini: Commander Ida. The closing credits say it all: "Osamu Ida, 1900 - 1979". note 
  • Kill 'Em All: Subverted in the end and in the Safety Zone.
  • Lighter and Softer: Than the Nanking Massacre in Real Life. As incredible as it sounds, the atrocities of the Japanese Army are actually downplayed in this movie.
  • Martial Arts Headband: Some of the Japanese wear them.
  • Meaningful Echo: During the Nanking victory parade in the end, when the Japanese soldiers roar triumphantly in unison, it's pretty obvious that Kadokawa is screaming in agony. His own screams echo in his head later on, when he releases the prisoners and kills himself.
  • Only Sane Man: Subverted in a way. At first glance, to the viewers Kadokawa is the only sane person among the Japanese grunts. Then we have scenes of them hanging out, having a fun time, playing the piano and singing old-time love songs together... it's dissonant. Even stranger, and Truth in Television, is the fact that some of these soldiers went home after this horrendous war, to become shy and polite salarymen...
  • Rape as Drama: Happens to almost every female character.
  • Rape, Pillage, and Burn: Emphasis on rape. This film is not pretty.
  • Redshirt Reporter: When the Japanese forces first entered the city of Nanking, they were accompanied by a reporter and his cameraman from the Asahi News Agency. The convoy was ambushed and almost entirely wiped out. However, it was still averted since the cameraman ended up being the only survivor and even managed to escape the ambush and sound the alarm, dooming the Chinese resistance in the city.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Connections!: Rabe is allowed to set up the Safety Zone for civilians because of his connections to Nazi Germany.
  • Sex Slave: Those who are forced to become "comfort women". Only the scene where they volunteer is heartbreaking.
  • Shoot the Dog: Kadokawa kills Mrs. Jiang with a bullet to the head, in order to spare her getting gang-raped to death.
  • Shout-Out: The bleak Deliberately Monochrome footage was meant as a homage to Schindler's List.
  • Sociopathic Soldier: Most of the Japanese soldiers, of the crazed Patriotic Fervor variety. It's downright eerie to watch these guys goofing around and cracking jokes together, when they're not being sadistic loons.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: When Kadokawa, Ida, and the other men are singing nostalgic love ballads together, while the corpses of "comfort women", their lipstick still fresh, are dumped in piles and burned.
  • Spiritual Successor: A deliberate one to Schindler's List, attempting to do for the Rape of Nanking what the previous film did for the Holocaust, right down to the black and white photography.
  • Team Mom: Mrs. Jiang again.
  • Token Good Teammate: Kadokawa. He's the only Japanese soldier to appear remotely disturbed by the atrocities being committed and has actual empathy for the helpless civilians.
  • Unsafe Haven: The Safety Zone in Nanking. By the end, the Japanese don't even bother to get "search warrants" to go in there for rape and pillage. The zone was abolished the following year.
  • Villains Out Shopping: The Japanese soldiers were shown doing totally normal things such as talking about now much they miss home, or just singing and relaxing together.
  • War Is Hell
  • Would Hurt a Child: Oh, yes, the Japanese would. Especially, Commander Ida.
  • Yank the Dog's Chain: Just when you thought Mr. Tang and his wife were actually getting out of Nanking...


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