City of Life and Death (a J!-ENT Blu-ray Disc Review)

October 20, 2011 by  

“City of Life and Death” is the most visceral war film that I have seen to effectively capture the atrocities and the brutality of the Nanking massacre in cinema.  This is an unforgettable film that resonates within you for a very long time with its realistic and stunning cinematography.  Director Lu Chuan has created a masterpiece!  This Blu-ray is fantastic!  “City of Life and Death” is highly recommended!

Images courtesy of © 2009 China Film Group Corporation/Stellar Mega Films Ltd./Jian Su Broadcasting Corporation/Media Asia Films. All Rights Reserved.

TITLE: City of Life and Death


DURATION: 113 Minutes

BLU-RAY DISC INFORMATION: 1920x1080p (2:35:1), Mandarin with optional English Subtitles

COMPANY: Lorber Films/Kino Lorber

RATED: Not Rated

Release Date: October 25, 2011

Written and Directed by Lu Chuan

Produced by John Chong, Sanping Han, Hong Qin, Andy Zhang, Li Zhou

Music by Tong Liu

Cinematography by Yu Cao

Edited by Yun Teng

Production Design by Yi Hao


Ye Liu as Lu Jianxiong

Yuanyuan Gao as Miss Jiang

Hideo Nakaizumi as Kadokawa

Wei Fan as Mr. Tang

Yiyan Jiang as Xiao Jiang

Ryu Kohata as Ida

Bin Liu as Xiadouzi

Yuki Miyamoto as Yuko

John Paisley as John Rabe

Beverly Peckous as Minnie Vautrin

Lan Qin as Mrs. Tang

Sam Voutas as Durdin

Di Yao as Tang Xiaomei

Yisui as Shunzi

On December 9, 1937, the Imperial Japanese Army laid siege to the Chinese capital of Nanking, beginning a reign of terror that killed as many as 300,000 civilians — an infamous tragedy now referred to as the Rape of Nanking. The first big-budget fiction film by the Chinese to deal with this seminal event in their modern history, CITY OF LIFE AND DEATH is a visceral, heartbreaking portrait of life during wartime, and an unforgettable masterpiece of contemporary world cinema.

For many years, I have been waiting for a powerful film that would show people of the atrocities that took place from December 1937-January 1938 in the capital city of Nanking.

While there have been several films on what occurred in Nanking over seventy years ago, young writer/director Lu Chuan accomplished what many felt he couldn’t do, to create a realistic portrayal of the genocide.

Known as the Nanking Massacre and also the “Rape of Nanking”, the atrocities were committed during the Second Sino-Japanese War when the soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army slaughtered civilians of all ages, raped women until they died.  It is estimated that 300,000 people were massacred.

Despite records kept by Nazi-supporter John Rabe (the person who tried to save the Chinese in Nanking by developing a safe zone) , the records kept by Westerners working for the Red Cross or were missionaries and journalists and residents who witnessed the atrocities, to this day, the genocide of the civilians of Nanking is still being disputed by Japanese nationalists who believe that the massacre was fabricated.

Needless to say, because of the war and atrocities that were committed during the war, it remains to be a tense and problematic situation between both countries today.

I have researched the Nanking (or Nanjing) Massacre since I was in college, as my eyes were opened to the atrocities committed, I know that many people around the world are not familiar of what happened to the Chinese people.  And since the ’90s, I have been wanting to see novels receive film adaptations and while there have been several films featuring John Rabe and also bits and pieces of the battle of Nanking, there have not been many movies that would realistically capture the battle but also the atrocities committed by the Japanese Imperial troops towards the Chinese people of Nanking.

Especially since its a touchy subject and the fact that many Chinese still hold a lot of pain and anger towards the Japanese because of the war.  And for director Lu Chuan, his goal was to create a realistic portrayal of the atrocities committed towards the innocent civilians of Nanking but also to show a sympathetic side to the Japanese and show that while what the Japanese Imperial soldiers did do to Chinese was barbaric, it does not make the whole country barbaric.

In an interview with Empire Magazine, Lu Chuan said, “Yes, Japanese people committed a crime but maybe it’s not a fault of a certain nation, maybe it’s a fault of the war, so I’m not going to make a movie against a certain nation, but against the war. If the government forces us to go to the battlefield, everybody can be a killer.”

But most importantly, it was a film that Chuan, who did countless research, lived and studied in Nanking wanted the film for people outside of China to know about what took place in Nanking.

“City of Life and Death” was created with a budget of $10 million, casting of hundreds of people which would include both Chinese and Japanese talent and the film would receive rave reviews from critics worldwide and would win numerous awards around the world for “Best Film” and “Best Cinematography”.

“City of Life and Death” is a film that begins shortly after the start of the Second Sino-Japanese war, the Imperial Japanese army has captured the capital of the Republic of China, Nanking and because of that, many of the Chinese commaders of the KMT began to flee Nanking.  Meanwhile, soldier Lu Jianxiong (played by Liu Ye), his comrade Zhao try to fight the fleeing Chinese troops from abandoning the city.  But as the Chinese soldiers attempt to leave, they are captured by the Japanese Imperial troops.

As the Japanese scour the city, we are introduced to Japanese soldier Sergeant Masao Kadokawa (played by Hideo Nakaizumi).  Like everyone on the Japanese side, they are low on food and drinks, so they loot the Chinese restaurants for anything to drink.

The soldiers who are led by Ida (played by Ryu Kohata) are approached by Dr. John Rabe (played by John Paisley) and Mr. Tang (played by Wei Fan).   [Note: John Rabe was a foreign national from Germany and a Nazi-supporter who along with 15 American and European missionaries and businessman created the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone.  The Safety Zone provided Chinese refugees with food and shelter and prevent them from being slaughtered by the Japanese Imperial troops).

As Rabe tries to talk to Ida and tell them that Japanese can not interfere with the Safety Zone and that he is German and is a Nazi, he hopes that because of Germany and Japan’s alliance, he could deter them from hurting the Chinese.  But unfortunately, Ida could care less about what Rabe and Mr. Tang have to say and continue on their way to scouring the city.

We see a small group of Japanese soldiers led by Commander Ida (played by Ryu Kohata) which includes Sgt. Kadokawa approach a church-like area and as they go inside, they see possibly thousands of men, women, children, elderly and wounded soldiers giving themselves up.  For Kadokawa, he is sent to bring Japanese reinforcements to the church.  And we see the first act of defiance as the soldiers shoot innocent people hiding inside closet.

But while scouring the city, Lu Jianxiong along with a group of young children who are Chinese soldiers begin to help him kill the Japanese troops.  So, as a sneak attack takes down the Japanese troops, more Japanese troops come to the area and there outnumber Jianxiong and the Chinese troops and all are captured and will all be executed.

All the people are rounded up and then the massacre begins.  We see the Japanese shooting and killing the innocent Chinese people of Nanking, people of all ages as they are gunned down.

We see thousands of people who are standing being shot and killed by soldiers.  We see hundreds of people being buried alive.  We see many people being lined up and slaughtered by the Japanese troops bayonets.

Thousands slaughtered…

And as his people are being killed, soldier Lu Jianxiong accepts his fate and joining him is his young soldier, a young boy named Xiaodouzi.

As the Japanese prepare the Chinese soldiers, young and old, for execution, the Chinese soldiers, with their last breath, yell scream about their pride for China, but for Lu, he looks at Xiadouzi and puts his hands over his eyes.  The Japanese soldiers shoot at the Chinese and kills them all in the mass execution.

For those staying in the safety zone, Mrs. Tang  and the women can not believe what has happened to everyone in the city. As some of the Chinese go out to see if they can check if there are any survivors, Zhao who survived the massacre also finds young Xiaodouzi alive.

Both escape to the safety zone in hopes that John Rabe and Mr. Tang can help them.

But there are thousands of people there and its way more than Rabe and others can watch over.  So, each night, bands of Japanese soldiers try to infiltrate and rape the Chinese women and some of them do just that in front of a crowd of other scared refugees who do not want to die.  As Rabe and the other Westerners try to stop the Japanese from raping the women, some of the women decide that they must take precautions and many go as far as cutting their hair and begin dressing like men in hopes that they do not get raped.

Meanwhile, on the Japanese side, Sgt. Kadokawa spends his time with a Japanese comfort woman named Yuriko.  Because he is conflicted by the violence around him, unlike other soldiers, he manages to show his act of kindness towards her and vows to marry her once the war is over.

At the Safety Zone, the Japanese soldiers pull a ruse and trick all the westerners who were protecting the Safety Zone to all come out while many Japanese soldiers go inside to the Safety Zone to rape more women.  Japanese Commander Ida tells Mr. Tang and John Rabe that he requires 100 female refugees to become comfort women or else more will be killed.  When they go after Mr. Tang’s wife and daughter, he tries to fight back and because Mr. Tang tried to fight against the Japanese, they grab his young child and throw her out the top window many levels down, killing her.

John Rabe and teacher Ms. Jiang Shuyun (played by Gao Yuanyuan) know that they have no choice and must tell the women in the Safety Zone that 100 female refugees must become “comfort women” for the Japanese Imperial Troops.  And those who were previously victimized realize that in order to save the others, they will need to volunteer themselves and become comfort women.

So, thousands of soldiers prepare to have their 15 minutes with the 100 women, including Commander Ida who beats Mr. Tang’s sister-in-law May for not smiling to him or kissing him as he rapes her.   As Sgt. Kadokawa meets Xiao Jian (played by Jiang Yiyan) and brings her rice, he can not rape her but when one soldier wonders if he is done, he immediately pulls down his pants and starts raping Xiao Jian in front of Kadokawa and the woman looks at Kadokawa with a lifeless stare.

And eventually, many of the women are killed due to the non-stop rape and many go crazy.  Such as May, who begins singing opera loudly and  is shot and killed by Commander Ida.  Kadokawa is repulsed by what Ida has done but Ida tells him that he liked her and that its better for her to die than being subjective to living this way.  Meanwhile, Xiaio Jian is dragged to a wheel barrow with other women who have died from rape and this time, the lifeless stare is there, but this time, she is dead.

Unfortunately because Dr. Rabe’s interference with German and Japan relations because of the Safety Zone, the Nazi’s order him to return to Germany and now the Safety Zone will be taken down.  With Rabe gone, what will happen to the many Chinese refugees still living in Nanking?

And for Kadokawa, what happens when the atrocities, the violence and alienation gets the best of him?


“City of Life and Death” is presented in 1080p High Definition (2:35:1), black and white.   Director Lu Chuan was influenced by Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” and felt the film should be kept in black and white and the decision to do so, in my opinion, made the film quite effective.  Because the film already focuses on the atrocities committed by the Japanese towards the Chinese citizens, the film would be too gory to watch if we were to see blood everywhere.  But by no means does that mean picture quality would be inferior.

In fact, this film is enhanced by its high details.  From the worn out skin of the soldiers, the grime on the skin and dark blood (which is seen as black) on the soldiers is shown effectively in HD as well as the clothing as you can see the stitching patterns and the threading with clarity.  Skin pigments with clarity.  Especially with the destruction of buildings during the battle, the scene of Nanking looks realistic in the film.

Black levels are deep while whites and grays have amazing contrast and the picture is sharp.

But I must credit cinematographer Yu Cao for capturing the brutality and the massacres with his camera shots.  What is captured on camera is heartbreaking, stunning and realistic.  The details are in the eyes, shots of fear, panic, despair…and people with tears knowing that they are not going to survive the ordeal… I was literally captivated and sickened at the same time.  To know that what is shown on screen is non-fiction and these atrocities took place (and many situations even worse as seen in photos from Nanking), many times during the film, I had to pause and collect myself.

This is the second time this has ever happened to me, the other time was watching Alain Resnais’ “Night and Fog”, a documentary about the Nazi concentration camps.  But the fact that a film such as “City of Life and Death” can have this much of an effect, it goes to show how viscerally powerful this film is.

So, overall…picture quality is magnificent, cinematography is fantastic!


The lossless soundtrack of “City of Life and Death” is magnificent.  Presented in Mandarin DTS-HD Matster Audio 5.1, let me first preface and say that there are not many Asian films (non-animated) that I have watched and felt were immersive but I have to say that the soundtrack for this film is hauntingly immersive as one can expect from a war film.

From the battle between the Chinese and Japanese, to hear the bullets zipping from all around you, to hear the gunfire, the tanks and mortar rounds going off close by or to a distance, to hear explosions from a distance and to hear the screams whenever a soldier shoots in the air, the realism of fear, sadness, pain and everything brutal that can be heard in a film about the massacre of innocent people is captured on the soundtrack of “City of Life and Death”.

To have a film that can captivate you visually but also via audio, needless to say, I was quite impressed and as Yu Cao did a wonderful job with cinematography, Tong Liu did a magnificent job with the music of the film.

With powerful visuals and powerful audio, needless to say, “City of Life and Death” was certainly an experience.  I heard no problems with the audio, Mandarin was crystal clear, each artillery fire was amazingly clear and once again, this lossless soundtrack is absolutely immersive and enhances your appreciation for the film!

As for subtitles, English subtitles are optional and are easy to read.


“City of Life and Death” comes with the following special features:

Disc 1:

  • Kino Lorber Trailers
  • Stills – Featuring stills from “City of Life and Death”
Disc 2:
  • Matters of Life and Death – (1:53:56) It’s important to note that the second disc is not a Blu-ray but a DVD.  The documentary or making-of features an interview with director Lu Chuan and the talent. But we learn how much of a challenge it was to create this film but also how the talent felt the power of this film and what they felt at the time of making the film.


“City of Life and Death” comes with a slipcase cover.

Heartbreaking, brutal but the most honest portrayal of the atrocities committed  in Nanking for cinema.

For so long, I have waited for a film of this caliber to be made on the “Rape of Nanking”.  Because it would probably answer a lot of questions for many people of why there are continued tensions between China and Japan.  But also to understand how war can make regular people do terrible things.

Back in college, I learned a lot about the Armenian Genocide and Nanking Massacres but while my college due to its large Armenian student population would have memorials for those who were killed, there is not much out there for people to know about what transpired in Nanking in 1937-1938 unless you go out and look for it.

Having studied Asian culture (especially with focus on Japanese culture), it was interesting to see things on brother’s side who is more closer to Chinese culture and him experiencing first hand through his Chinese father-in-law of the long-lasting pain and anger that Chinese have towards Japanese.  It was an intriguing juxtaposition because I recently wrote about how my grandfather fought against the Japanese in World War II but he told me that what happened then was due to war.

So, as I was researching this film, I ran a quote by director Lu Chuan with Filmmaker in which the director said, “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.”

And in China, since childhood, people are taught about what happened during their war against Japan and what Japan did to them, it doesn’t help when Japanese nationals continue to say that the genocide was fabricated.  And while the modern younger generation (in Japan) feels no attachment to what transpired in the past, they are not taught about the atrocities committed by their own people and pretty much, it’s part of the history that is hidden from them.  But many young people know that Japan at the time, are responsible for a lot of terrible things due to war, a lot of other countries have also done the same throughout time.

So, war is always ugly and war brings out the worst in humanity.

And what happened to the people of Nanking back in December 1937-January 1938 is shocking, disturbing and you can’t believe how people can be so cruel and barbaric but it happened.  And there is only so much one can do by reading a book, online and seeing the photos.  But for many people, they need the visual and “City of Life and Death” amazingly captures the massacres, the pain, the suffering of people with so much efficacy.  People have to remember, this was a low-budget film featuring hundreds of people, many who have never worked on a film before.  But yet, each role was crucial, each scene must look realistic and for everyone who participated in this film, they did a magnificent job in making the film real for us viewers.

As mentioned earlier, this is the second film where I had to pause and collect my thoughts and just take time and wait a few minutes because the massacre of innocents was making me feel sickened and to the point where I felt like crying because I have never seen humanity become so cruel to innocent people.  I know genocide has happened within my lifetime but what took place in Nanking is shocking.  From the massacre of 300,000 people, from soldiers having contests on how many people they can behead (and this was featured in a major Japanese newspaper publication as two soldiers were having a contest), to the rape of thousands of women and girls who were raped repeatedly until they died.  And there was no respect for these women.  These soldiers did their thing and not shown in this film but you can find photos are what soldiers inserted in women after they killed them.

And what is so unforgettable are the details captured by the cinematography of the film, when thousands are shot to death, people being buried alive, trying to escape but they can’t.  But just looking at the eyes of the characters, the tears, the lifelessness, the fear and in death.

Filmmaker Lu Chuan had encountered many challenges in making of this film.  From those who didn’t want to support it because of its content or that it was a film that a young director could not handle, but he proved them wrong.  He was able to write and direct a film that captured the atrocities and brutality against the Chinese people but also trying to show not exactly sympathy but to show that even the Japanese like the character Kadokawa did things that he did not want to do but because it was war, he was conflicted and starts to eat upon his soul.

The Blu-ray release is absolutely fantastic, from amazing picture quality and an immersive lossless soundtrack to a making-of that is not your average run-of-the mill non-exciting feature but there is a lot included in terms of sharing with the viewer of the challenges and the emotional state of the talent who took part in this film.  Because it was a thought-provoking film that has not been explored in this magnitude and the result is literally epic.

In fact, this film had so much of a profound effect on me that I hope to visit the Memorial Hall of Victims of the Nanjing Massacre in Nanjing.

Overall, “City of Life and Death” is the most visceral war film that I have seen to effectively capture the atrocities and the brutality of the Nanking massacre in cinema.  This is an unforgettable film that resonates within you for a very long time with its realistic and stunning cinematography.

Director Lu Chuan has created a masterpiece!  This Blu-ray release is highly recommended!

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