City of Life and Death

City of Life and Death
Directed by Lu Chuan
Produced by Lu Chuan
Han Sanping
John Chong
Written by Lu Chuan
Starring Liu Ye
Gao Yuanyuan
Music by Liu Tong
Cinematography Cao Yu
Editing by Teng Yu
Distributed by Media Asia Distribution Ltd.
China Film Group
Release date(s) April 22, 2009 (2009-04-22)
Running time 133 minutes
Country China
Language Mandarin, English, German, Japanese
Budget US$12 million

City of Life and Death (Chinese: 南京! 南京!; pinyin: Nánjīng! Nánjīng!) is a 2009 Chinese film directed by Lu Chuan, marking his third feature film. The film deals with the Battle of Nanjing and its aftermath (commonly referred to as "The Rape of Nanking" or the "Nanking Massacre") during the Second Sino-Japanese War. The film is also known as Nanking! Nanking! or Nanjing! Nanjing!.

While originally slated for a 2008 release, the director-general of the Chinese Film Bureau announced in September that the film would be delayed to an early 2009 release.[1] The film was eventually released on April 22, 2009 where it became a box-office success, earning RMB150m (approximately 20 million dollars) in its first two and a half weeks alone.[2]



City of Life and Death takes place in 1937, shortly after the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese War. The Imperial Japanese Army has just captured the capital of the Republic of China, Nanking. What followed is now known as the Nanking Massacre, a period of several weeks wherein massive numbers of Chinese prisoners of war and civilians were killed.

After some KMT commanders of the National Revolutionary Army flee Nanking, a Chinese Nationalist KMT soldier, Lu Jianxiong and his comrade-in-arms Zhao attempt to stop a fleeing group of troops from leaving the city, but as they exit the city gates, they are captured by Japanese Imperial troops that have surrounded the city.

As the Japanese search the city, Japanese soldier Sergeant Masao Kadokawa and other troops are raided by Lu and a small unit of KMT regular and irregular soldiers who attack from building tops. However, they are eventually forced to surrender as more Japanese troops arrive. Lu is captured and all the soldiers are marched out to the beach to be killed in a mass execution. Afterwards, Zhao finds Lu dead, but also sees that Xiaodouzi, a young boy soldier, has survived. Both of them flee to the Nanking Safety Zone run by Dr. John Rabe, a German business man and Nazi party member as well as other Westerners. In this safety zone, thousands of Chinese women, children, elderly men, and wounded soldiers seek refuge from the killing. The safety zone is forcefully entered several times by bands of Japanese soldiers intent on raping female refugees. Due to the repeated intrusions, the women are forced to cut their hair and dress like men in order to avoid being raped. Xiaojiang, an attractive prostitute refuses to do so saying that she needs to keep her hair in order to feed herself.

Meanwhile, Kadokawa develops feelings for a Japanese comfort woman named Yuriko, and struggles to come to terms with the omnipresent violence around him with his own conflicting impulses. Despite his feelings of alienation, Kadokawa brings Yuriko candy and gifts from Japan and vows to marry her after the war.

Mr. Tang, a longtime assistant to Rabe, and Ms. Jiang Shuyun, a young female teacher, manage the daily operation of the safety zone. Although in a privileged position, Mr. Tang is unable to protect his child daughter from being killed by a Japanese soldier, and his sister-in-law from being raped. When the Japanese commander Osamu Ida requires 100 female refuges to work as "comfort women", Dr. Rabe and Ms. Jiang tearfully make the announcement to the refugees. Xiaojiang and other attractive women volunteer to be comfort women.

Kadokawa meets Xiaojiang and brings her rice but witnesses another soldier rape her as she lies almost lifeless. Later, many of the volunteer comfort women including Xiaojiang die due to the non-stop rape (a non-fictional event which happened at Ginling College, Nanjing). Kadokawa feels further alienated when Ida shoots Mr. Tang's sister-in-law May, who, singing opera, has apparently lost her mind.

Dr. Rabe is ordered back to Germany because his activities with the safety zone are harming the relationship between Nazi Germany and Japan. As a personal assistant to Rabe, Tang and his wife are allowed to leave Nanjing with Rabe. Although Tang is about to leave, he changes his mind and stays in order to search for May. He trades places with an officer pretending to be Dr. Rabe's assistant which Ida allows despite knowing he is actually a soldier. Mrs. Tang is revealed to be pregnant before saying goodbye. As soon as Mrs. Tang and Rabe leave, Ida orders Tang shot by firing squad, though out of shame or guilt, turns his back and refuses to look.

The Japanese disband the safety zone and begin to hunt down any men who look like soldiers. The Japanese claim that soldiers should come forward promising work and pay and will not be executed. However, all males deemed to be soldiers are put in a truck to be executed. Zhao, the soldier who survived the initial mass execution, is physically checked along with his hands and is initially deemed to be a non-combatant, but is noticed by a Japanese soldier and gets put in the truck of men believed to be soldiers.

After a plea is made by the remaining Westerners, Ida allows family members to select one male to be saved. Ms. Jiang rescues one male by claiming that he is her husband and then returns for Zhao. She also tries to claims him as her husband along with Xiaodouzi pretending to be his son. Kadokawa looks straight at Ms. Jiang but does not reveal her ruse. However, another Japanese soldier points her out to Ida and has all three of them captured. Zhao is again taken away along with Xiaodouzi this time. Ms. Jiang, knowing that she may be raped to death, asks Kadokawa to shoot her. He grants her wish and shoots her much to the other soldiers' surprise.

Afterwards, Kadokawa looks for Yuriko but finds out that she has died traveling with the Japanese troops who have left Nanking. He says that she was his wife at one point. Celebrating the conquest of Nanking, the Japanese perform a dance where Kadokawa reveals his emotional turmoil over what he has done and witnessed.

Zhao and Xiaodouzi are marched out of town by Kadokawa and another soldier. Zhao and Xiaodouzi are surprised when Kadokawa releases them. Kadokawa tells the other soldier that "Life is more difficult than death."

The other soldier walks away and expresses his respect for Kadokawa's decision, Kadokawa weeps before shooting himself to escape from his guilt.

In the ending credits, it is revealed that Mrs. Tang lived to an old age, as did Commander Ida. Xiaodouzi is shown to still be alive today also.


  • Liu Ye as Lu Jianxiong
  • Gao Yuanyuan as Jiang Shuyun
  • Hideo Nakaizumi as Kadokawa
  • Fan Wei as Mr. Tang
  • Jiang Yiyan as Xiao Jiang
  • Ryu Kohata as Ida
  • Liu Bin as Shunzi
  • John Paisley as John Rabe
  • Beverly Peckous as Minnie Vautrin
  • Qin Lan as Mrs. Tang
  • Sam Voutas as Durdin
  • Yao Di as Tang Xiaomei
  • Zhao Yisui as Shunzi


Filming began in Tianjin in October 2007,[3] working under a budget of ¥80 million(US$12 million), and was produced by the China Film Group, Stella Megamedia, Media Asia and Jiangsu Broadcasting.[3]

The film endured a lengthy period undergoing analysis by Chinese censors, waiting six months for script approval, and another six months for approval of the finished film.[4] It was finally approved for release on April 22, 2009.[5] However, the Film Bureau did require some minor edits and cuts, including a scene of a Japanese officer beheading a prisoner, a scene of a woman being tied down prior to being raped, and an interrogation scene of a Chinese soldier and a Japanese commander.[4]


City Of Life And Death was released on 535 film prints and 700 digital screens on April 22 grossing an estimated $10.2m (RMB70m) in its first five days. This made it the second biggest opener in 2009, after John Woo's Red Cliff Part II which opened with $14.86m (RMB101.5m) in its first four days of release. The film is also the highest new box office record for director Lu Chuan, whose second feature Kekexili: Mountain Patrol grossed $1.26m (RMB8.6m) in 2004.

Despite its success, City of Life and Death created controversy upon its release in mainland China. In particular, some criticized the film's sympathetic portrayal of the Japanese soldier Kadokawa. The film was nearly pulled from theaters, and Lu even received online death threats to both himself and his family.[4]

The film will get a limited US release as it will be screened in 11 cities throughout America in May, 2011.[6]


The film won the top Golden Shell prize at the 2009 San Sebastian Film Festival and also won the Best Cinematography prize.[7] At the 2009 Asia Pacific Screen Awards, the film won Achievement in Directing (Lu Chuan) and Achievement in Cinematography (Cao Yu). The film also won Best Director (Lu Chuan) and Best Cinematographer (Cao Yu) Awards at the 4th Asian Film Awards in 2010. The film won Best Cinematography (Cao Yu) at the 46th Golden Horse Film Awards and was nominated for Best Visual Effects. At the Oslo Film Festival in 2009, the film also won Best Film Prize.

Critical reception

Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 93% of critics have given the film a positive review based on 43 reviews, with an average score of 8.4/10.[8]

Kate Muir of The Times gave the film five out of five stars, describes the film as "harrowing, shocking and searingly emotional", and states "the picture has the grandeur of a classic. It should be witnessed."[9] Derek Elley of Variety states "at times semi-impressionistic, at others gut-wrenchingly up close and personal, Nanjing massacre chronicle City of Life and Death lives up to hype and expectations."[10] Maggie Lee of The Hollywood Reporter states the film is "Potently cinematic and full of personal stylistic bravura."[11]

Betsy Sharkey of the Los Angeles Times describes the film as "Truly a masterpiece in black and white and pain" and the film contains "some of the most affectingly choreographed battle scenes to be found, with Chuan a master at moving from the micro of a face to the macro of a city in ruins."[12] Karina Longworth of IndieWIRE describe the film "manages to convey the total horror of the Japanese atrocities from the perspective of both perpetrators and victims, all with exceptional nuance, sensitivity and sadness" and the film "has the feel of a lost post-War foreign classic, a masterwork implicating the viewer in the horrors of bearing witness."[13]

Michael O'Sullivan at the Washington Post gave it three out of four stars, elucidating it as "...a muscular, physical movie, pieced together from arresting imagery and revelatory gestures, large and small."[14]

See also


  1. ^ Frater, Patrick (2008-09-26). "Domestic films dominate China B.O.". Variety. Retrieved 2008-12-05. 
  2. ^ Elley, Derek (2009-05-14). "City of Life and Death Review". Variety. Retrieved 2009-05-16. 
  3. ^ a b Ho, Vicci (2007-10-05). "Lu Chuan's 'Nanking' begins filming". Variety. Retrieved 2008-01-06. 
  4. ^ a b c Wong, Edward (2009-05-23). "Showing the Glimmer of Humanity Amid the Atrocities of War". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-05-23. 
  5. ^ Coonan, Clifford (2009-03-23). "China OKs Rape of Nanking Pics". Variety. Retrieved 2009-03-27. 
  6. ^ "City of Life and Death (Nanjing! Nanjing!) gets a limited release in the US". Asia Pacific Arts. 04/20/2011. 
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^ City of Life and Death. The Times
  10. ^ Elley, Derek (2009-05-14). "City of Life and Death". Variety. 
  11. ^
  12. ^ Betsy Sharkey (2009-09-12). "Of men and children and war...". Los Angeles Times. 
  13. ^ Karina Longworth (2009-09-17). "Reviews: The Horrors of Bearing Witness: Lu Chuan’s “City of Life and Death”". IndieWIRE. 
  14. ^ "A Chinese view of war's horrors", Michael O'Sullivan. Washington Post. June 10, 2011. Accessed June 10, 2011

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