The City of Life and Death

Problems of Speaking Positions in Representing Nanjing Massacre:
万国彩票官网,The Case of City of Life and Death (2009)


City of Life and Death (dir. Lu Chuan, 2009) is the latest full-length feature on the list of Chinese-language full-length features about the Nanjing Massacre committed by the Japanese troops in 1937. The film as a text itself and the debates it has aroused are hard to generalize. It was praised by, for instance, Chinese film critic He Dong as “the most shocking Anti-Japanese film I have ever seen … true patriotism”(qtd. in Min) and Tony Rayns as seeing the past “clearly and objectively”(“City”). The torrents of views from the other side(s) are best summarized by Shelly Kraicer, noticing that it was “reviled by many Chinese audience members, directors, and critics as either (take your pick from any point on several spectrums) an act of intolerable anti-Chinese treason, a pro-government tract, or a hack work of mainstream entertainment.” And the most effective term to describe the film is, as Kevin B. Lee borrows from Robin Wood, “an incoherent text”:

我并不想去深究陆川在细微表达上的技巧,有人喜欢有人讨厌。这部影片在我看来,只是脱离了政治,就像片名一样City of Life and Death,一个只有死生的城市,一群立场位置不同的棋子;他们本都是人,他们本都有情欲,但他们莫名其妙地要去死,某名其妙地要去生。

    “The reason why any work of art will reveal—somewhere—areas or levels of incoherence is that so many things feed into it which are beyond the artist’s conscious control—not only his personal unconscious (the possible presence of which even the most traditional criticism has been ready to acknowledge), but the cultural assumptions of his society. Those cultural assumptions themselves have a long history (from the immediate social-political realities back through the entire history of humanity) and will themselves contain, with difficulty, accumulated strains, tensions and contradictions.” (Robin Wood, “The Incoherent Text”, qtd. in Lee)


万国彩票,In the Kraicer and Lee’s reviews, the lump of incoherence and dissonance is disentangled through the prism of politics, culture and (global) commerciality, the basic arguments being (though varying from each other at some points): packaged with modern cinematic techniques, the film shows a strong penchant for learning from Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Schindler’s List (1993), but it doesn’t deviate far from the conventions of the previous Nanjing Massacre films, or rather, the tradition of serving the current ideology in China (which is diversified, as I would argue in my essay). In his defense of the film, Tony Rayns also refers to the politics in China, stating that the film, unlike its predecessors, has made certain efforts to defuse the potential nationalistic sensation to be raised by a work of such a theme. The discrepancy of opinions on the film is to a large extent hinged upon the humanization of the main Japanese character (among several “main” characters), sergeant Kadokawa, who threads the plots throughout the film, witnesses, participates in some of the atrocities and finally commits a redemptive suicide. To the conventional Nanjing Massacre films, it has indeed challenged the “orthodox” of vilifying Japanese soldiers. But apparently patterned after “an innocent American private” (“Contradictory”, Cui), is he “a peculiar standpoint”(Cui)/“the Achilles heel” (Lee), or a “refusal to bow to this neo-nationalist tide” (Rayns)? Is it possible to be both? The same quandary also happens to the judgment of other characters.
     Faced with such a case as City and the subsequent readings of it, one can’t help but recall the well-known dictum of Croce: all history is contemporary history, meaning that the studies of history are conditioned by contemporary considerations (Smith 53). Just like the multifarious aspects of contemporary China, the readings of the political/cultural assumptions of City can be located in various systems of coordinates, which are inextricable in essence. In this essay, I intend to address the problems of the “speaking position” of this film. I borrow the term from Thomas Elsaesser’s essay “Subject Positions, Speaking Positions”, in which he looks into the problem of how “to speak for someone, or find oneself spoken by someone” (147) in Holocaust cinema. In respect to City of Life and Death I will approach the film by particularly examining the incoherent parts of the narrative to investigate “who the film speaks for” and, in this case, “who the film speaks to”. In order to do so, I will refer to the discussions of some of the other features about Nanjing 1937 as well as those of the trauma cinema – especially Holocaust cinema - worldwide.


The first point I would argue is that the speaking position of City, along with other Nanjing Massacre films, is largely tied to an attitude of authenticating the history rather than creating. But the ideal is bound to be false and abortive. First let’s come to the background-setting information of the incident and its historiography in general. On Dec 13th, 1937, after four months of air raids, the Japanese army entered the city of Nanjing, the then-capital of Republic of China and made the city the setting of “mass looting, burning destruction, murder and rape. (Berry 110)” The incident is remembered as one of the most horrid memories of the modern Chinese history and “among the most brutal in modern warfare”(qtd. in Berry 110). After the Sino-Japanese war ended in 1945, however, due to the Chinese Civil War and political changeover in China, the incident had been very much underplayed by both KMT (Chinese Nationalist Party) and CCP, not only immediately after 1945, but also after the founding of People’s Republic of China, when the Cold War mentalities and discourse prevailed. It is not until the mid-1980s that the Nanjing Massacre, due to the change of diplomatic policies (in accord with the domestic political agenda) (Yoshida 110), re-emerged strongly and broadly in the Chinese consciousness (Berry 110) in various forms. In the international circle, Iris Chang’s bestseller The Rape of Nanking published in 1997 inspired an array of academic studies on the incident by foreign scholars, some of whom introduced the perspective of comparing the Holocaust of World War II with the Nanjing Massacre (111). On the part of Japan, disputes over the memory and history of Nanjing between opposing camps have arisen since the 70s (Yoshida 5), in which case “Japanese revisionists, that is, those commentators who have downplayed, excused, or even denied the atrocities in Nanjing, have performed a pivotal role in publicizing Nanjing beyond national boundaries” (5) reaching back China in the 80s and then Chinese-American organizations in the 90s (6). One of the controversies revolves around the death toll of the Massacre. While the usually estimated death toll is 200,000 to 300,000 or even more, while some historians have opposed the number with their own estimates of 50000 or even 5000 (qtd. in Berry 110).
     Although the wartime atrocities committed by Japanese have been given more and more attention to the point that it is called by some writers “The Super Holocuast” (qtd. in Berry 111), the creative cinematic works representing the Nanjing Massacre are inadequate both in quantity and quality (112) in comparison with those of Holocaust. According to Michael Berry’s study primarily on the three full-length features Massacre in Nanjing (dir. Luo Guanqun 1987), Black Sun: The Nanjing Massacre (dir. T.F. Mou, 1995) and Don’t Cry, Nanking (dir. Wu Ziniu, 1995) (produced in P.R.C., Hong Kong, and P.R.C. respectively, while the cast of Don’t Cry Nanking include actors and actresses from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and mainland), where he points out some of the similarities shared by the trio: “the incorporation of the International Safety Zone” founded by John Rabe, “presence of ‘good-hearted’ Japanese characters”, the death toll of “300,000” (the figure was officially agreed upon by both KMT and CCP in the after-war verdict of war criminal and now etched in the P.R.C. official historiography) stated at the beginning or the end of the film, and such images as kids and pregnant women (134), and if I may add, depiction of a group of characters from different backgrounds. The recurrences of these symbols within 90-min-something lengths of films have taken “a shape, an identity, and a texture” of the history of Nanjing 1937, but in an opposite sense to the quoted words by Elsaesser that suggests the narrative cinema of the Vietnam War has established “its own reality” (146). While history has become “the signifier of the inauthentic” and an “uncertainty” about “crossing and re-crossing” between memory and history under the post-modern circumstance (145), and the function of screen representation has slipped to the end of “re-telling, re-mebering, and repeating” the trauma as a therapeutic practice (146), the films about Nanjing Massacre still display a strong impulse – or even a sense of mission - to “function as cinematic memorials”(Berry 134) effecting on the collective cognition of the Massacre and show “a gesture of proof/authentication” of the debated history (135). This position is indeed prompted by the controversies around the death toll and other historical facts of Nanjing in Dec. 1937, posing a reaction to the Japanese revisionists. This impulse is illustrated by the desire to incorporate foreigners as witnesses, since the footages, diaries and photos produced by the foreigners in war-time Nanjing have played decisive roles proving real the Massacre in history, and more importantly “have been ingrained in the Chinese collective unconscious through their continual reuse in a series of pedagogical documentaries” (115) broadcast on TV in China. So is the death toll of 300,000 being repeated emphasized in the documentaries produced domestically (114-115), simplistically labeling any question towards the number as a gesture of denial.
    City of Life and Death does not deviate from the line. The opening credits read: “This film is dedicated to the 300,000 fellow citizens killed in the Massacre”, giving out the number of 300,000 as an established fact. It is even clearer in the trailer of the film broadcast on CCTV (Chinese Central TV), as the voice-over describes it as “a testimony”. From the beginning and then throughout the film, there feature “a series of postcards whose text sets up the scenario” (Lee) in digital animation. The messages on the postcards range from the landscape of Nanjing to the historic dates of the Japanese troop’s aggressions taking place in the city. Lee is right noticing that there is a certain kind of legitimizing /elevating powers in English words vis-à-vis the “global legibility” of the incident.
     The intention of authentication is reaffirmed at the end of the film, where we see the pictures of the main characters of the film, including the Nationalist captain, Chinese member of the International Safety Zone, the Japanese soldiers, John Rabe, etc. Under the pictures, there are captions stating the full names and the birth and death years of the characters. However, except for John Rabe, the other members are all fictional, so are their names and birth/death year. The act of concretization of the personal profiles at the very end of the film is an abrupt and facile addendum, being incoherent with the main body of the film, in which most of the characters are not called by full names. But the last part is obviously undeletable in several senses: first, the death year of the “bad-guy” Japanese officer Ida played by Ryu Kohata shows 1974, implying that he survived the 1946 International Tribunal for the Far East unpunished, alluding to one of the key controversies remaining on this issue. Second, it also ties to the reflection on the inadequate effort devoted to the recording of victims, which was broached with the advent of the 70th anniversary of Nanjing Massacre (Chen). Comparison had often been drawn between the record of victims of Nanjing Massacre (about 3000 exact names carved on the wall at Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall by 2006) and those of the Holocaust and Hiroshima, for which some Chinese scholars called for a more detailed victim list for the sake of respect for the individuals as well as a more convincing argument on the death toll (Zhu). It is also declared by Lu himself that “we really want to show what has been covered…after 70 years, we are sitting here, can you name the 300,000 victims now? I bet you can’t even name three or them. (qtd. in Min)” The photos of the actors and actresses (local stars being highly recognizable), affixed with fake information, have become testimonial to the “once-lived” and tokens of the ambition of being able to make up for the past neglect in recording history.
      The “therapeutic practice” (if it qualifies as one) here at the end of the film appears as a rupture from the main body of the film. It is not by the means of retelling history but re-membering the story just told, making manifest one of the problems of the film’s speaking position: with the act of adding fictional personal profile to the characters, so determinedly breaking the cognitive coherence (the spectator to be suddenly informed of the full names and ages) of the narrative as to alienate the spectator, the film blatantly announces that it is faking the indexicality of the history it has just represented – that it is taking the position of direct address to the audience, with messages not emanating from the cinema as a reality, but the pre-calculation of the director. I find it is symbolic of all the problems of speaking position related to this film: it is incoherent in that it takes the incoherent of the speaking positions of the director informed by different agendas.


The second speaking position is concerned with the “corrective” impulse (Rayns) to the earlier attempts to depict Nanjing Massacre, which are obsessed with the dichotomy between wallowing in victimhood and vilification of the victimizer. In Lu Chuan’s own words, his two purposes are “to show that Nanjing was not slaughtered without resistance” and “to let us know what kind of enemies that defeated us really are” (qtd. in Min). The corrective is modulated on the “group film” model of the 1940s Chinese films showing a microcosm where the fates of different individuals are interweaved (Berry 116). And Lu makes it diffuse by granting the protagonists “intermittent focus but no overarching narrative line” (Rayns). So on the tapestry of the protagonists in the film, we see Chinese soldiers, Japanese soldiers, members of the Safety Zone Committee, “traitors”, prostitutes and victims, contributing from different standpoints with an answer to the question of “how did it happen?” The ensemble approach is not rare in the films on Nanjing Massacre. In the three films Berry studies, there are all clusters of victims from different backgrounds to show how overwhelming and indiscriminate the war atrocities are, but never before has the point of view of the Japanese soldier been included. If we scrutinize the “group film” strategy itself, we may find paradoxes: within the 130 minutes of the running time, it seems the most efficient mode to convey the complexity of an issue, but at the risk that “psychology is left more or less unexplored”, as Rayns remarks on Lu Chuan’s previous work Kekexili: Mountain Patrol (2004). In terms of this piece of historiography with the subjectivities of both victims and victimizers involved, this approach is further problematized: on the one hand, it tries to prevent the Spielbergian principle shooting Schindler’s List (1993) that “one can represent the many, that the part can stand for the whole” (Elsaesser 178), for it is very likely to be interpretive and partial in representing the history based on the account of one side; on the other hand, however, it is reconfirming the validity of the principle due to (at the very least) the inadequate time allotted to each one and the fact that this tapestry structure in its own right carries the presumption that each individual in it is a symbolic “everyman”, experiencing a specific situation but heading towards a destination that can be generalized to others. In the case of this specific incident, the destinations for the opposing sides are that “the Chinese were killed” and “the Japanese killed”, while the corrective of Lu is supposed to address the questions of “how” and “why”. But the imperative to show “how” sometimes forgoes a convincing motivation, gives way to the imagination well informed with the “longstanding domestic account of tragedy” (Lee) and the “liberal-humanist” (Kraicer) notion that is not that well thought out.
    The lack of motivation, for instance, problematizes some of the facts to be vindicated on the screen as the director wishes. At the beginning of the film, we are presented with the scene of the collision inside the Chinese Nationalist army, between those who want to flee the city and those who block the city gate. After a spectacle of swarms of human bodies, clash and close-ups of the desperate, longing-for-life expressions of fleeing soldiers, it cuts to the cheering of Japanese army for the takeover of the city. It is not explained under what circumstance the Nationalist soldiers are deserting the city. The postcard prior to the scene does not explain everything - it only says the Nationalist Government has withdrawn from Nanjing. In fact, statistics have it that 150,000 soldiers defending the city way outnumbered the Japanese troops of about 50,000 (Sun, 44). Some hold that the fall of Nanking should be attributed to the fact that after the huge loss in the Battle of Shanghai (the Chinese version of Battle of Stalingrad), the Chinese army was fatigued and that the facilities were unable to accommodate everybody at the abrupt higher command of withdrawal made on the day before Dec. 13, 1937, or that the strategic abandonment of the then capital was made under the belief that the Japanese troops would not raze the city and commit mass murder. None of these facts/postulations are by any rate taken into account in the representation of the fleeing Nationalists. This makes the proclamation of Lu Chuan awkward that he wants to show that the Chinese has been kept on “resisting” (qtd. in Min). Indeed, the gallant last-pitch defense led by Captain Lu in the film quickly follows up, showing great cinematic mastery comparable to Saving Private Ryan (Lee). But it is again downplayed by the scene that a large number of soldiers dispersed among Chinese refugees surrender with their guns raised up in front of half a dozen armed Japanese soldiers.
     In the face of the factual fall of the city and the mass casualties, the resistance rhetoric based on the believed/imagined courage of the individuals stands very lame. Sequences later, the captured Captain Lu is seen to be the first to stand up and proceed to his own execution. Those beside him yell out “China won’t subjugate!” desperately. Then they are all shot dead, accompanied by theme music. The scene presents an awkward heroism, as if dying – or more exactly, being cooperative with one’s (inevitable) execution - is glorious. The figure of Captain Lu is read by Rayns as in great despair (“Letter”) but by Kraicer a repetition of the revolutionary martyr recurring in socialist cinema. I find he straddles on both, as Lu is appropriating the socialist motif to fill in the gaps between his corrective impulse to change the representation of victim grievance and despair presumed by the factual death toll.
     A similar strategy is adopted to depict the “righteous” and “brave” prostitutes. In exchange for the safety of the International Safety Zone, the Zone is forced to provide 100 females to be comfort women for the Japanese troops. One prostitute volunteers to go and she is followed by several others, prostitutes or not, who also volunteer. The voluntary sacrifice is thus appropriated again as a kind of resistance - “she is a prostitute with guts” says Lu (qtd. in Min). But in some other interview, Lu cites the diary of a Japanese, speaking of the guts of a different definition: “seven or eight prostitutes in the Japanese comfort station pulled out the knives of the soldiers and hurt them… when the soldiers came to kill these women, they committed suicide” (qtd. in Min). However, no matter how it qualifies as a resistance story (or even symbolically chaste story), it does not reach the screen. The major forms of resistance of in City, in the end, are constituted by acts of voluntary disarming and acceptance of humiliation.
     The contradiction between director Lu’s resistance rhetoric (allegedly based on historical facts) and the actual representation can be understood through the film’s depiction of the slaughters of Japanese, in other words, Lu Chuan’s answer to the questions of “what kind of enemy we lost the battle to”/“why the Japanese killed”. Intriguingly, Lu sets some of the atrocities in a sort of “reaction” scenarios: the Japanese soldiers pull the triggers at civilians in fear of the disguised soldiers among them; they become rapists because of long term abstinence, etc. With these motivations explicitly portrayed, as both Cui Weiping and Dai Jinhua have pointed out, the peculiarity of the atrocities of the Japanese troops are downgraded - only the Nanjing Massacre is not just about “a war”, but “the war”. For instance, Cui remarks that “many of the atrocities committed by the Japanese invasion troops … originated from some ideology (that Chinese are the inferior people) … In this sense, what the Japanese invasion troops did to China is comparable to the Holocaust, pertaining to ‘racial discrimination’ and ‘anti-humanism’ rather than conventional war crimes” (“Reflections”, Cui). Dai also mentions that in a narrative so closely revolving around abducting women to comfort stations, the criminality of the comfort women policy is substituted for such crimes as ransacking ordinary residence to rape indiscriminately in terms of age (as are depicted in Black Sun and Don’t Cry, Nanjing) or even sex.
     Then we finally come to the crux of humanizing Kadokawa. In comparison with the good-hearted Japanese civilians in previous Nanjing Massacre films as symbols of the friendship between two nations both subject to the savagery of the war and the distinction between war criminals and civilians, Lu stretches to depict the transformation of a Japanese soldier from “a daydreaming innocent” (Lee) to one that is so stricken by the brutality of war that he kills himself. There are sporadic moments showing that he is shocked from his belief in what he is doing in this war: soon after the film begins he is shaken when he is mistaken and kills some kids hidden in a closet. Another is when he is told of the death of the Japanese comfort woman he lost his virginity to. In some other time, he is seen patrolling on the street, witnessing the mutilated and humiliated bodies around, being upset and confused by the sight. Two brief encounters with the Chinese civic leader of the Zone may also be supposed to mean something: in a conversation them during a raid on the Zone, he reveals that he is religious and went to church school; later he kills her at her murmured request to prevent her from the humiliation of his comrades. Finally, after a long spectacle of the ceremony of the triumph over Nanjing, in which Kadokawa is again shown overwhelmed, exhausted and exploited by the “collective course”, he releases two Chinese and then chooses to shoot himself in the temple. From just what is shown from the film, we may ask: what sent Kadokawa there to Nanjing? This ties to the arguments made on the motives of the Japanese atrocities in general, but in this particular case of Kadokawa, it is also concerned with drive behind his transformation. What is offered to us within the narrative is that as he gets physically closer, from the ditch in a distance from Nanjing, to the inside of the city, the heart of darkness, he begins to realize the brutality of the war and war crime and gets shocked by the accidental murder he has conducted. This simplistic narrative is neither referential to “the war”, nor apt to pass muster as a meditation on “a war”. In her review of the reflections on war in creative works, Cui remarks:
“To some extent, the novel Lord of the Flies sets and represents a standard tendency of the reflections on war – that is, war is more about the evilness in humanity rather than virtues. It is not that there is no virtue in wars but that – if there has to be someone to explain why something so horrid as wars has happened, in order to embrace responsibilities for wars rather than exoneration, then an investigation into the evilness of war is more substantial and reasonable. If either of the opposing sides of the war receives their redemption respectively, like what City of Life and Death shows us, then who is responsible for the damages and calamities caused by wars?” (“Reflections”)

If we recall the sacrifice-as-resistance mode of representation of the victims in the film, when connecting it to Kadokawa, we will find that it has been appropriated to be the resource of his redemption. On the other hand, as the assumption in Cui’s remark is that Kadokawa represents the side of the Japanese war criminals, it can be contested that Kadokawa is an exception from the other Japanese soldiers are still the “quintessential ‘Japanese Devils’ as featured in numerous Chinese films” (Lee). And we can’t ignore the cue left in photo of the “bad-guy” Ida that there ware still war criminals unpunished. It suddenly returns us to the question of where this film is supposed to be positioned vis-à-vis history. On the surface, it resists personalizing in the hope of achieving a kind of multiplicity/objectivity, but it falls into the dogmatism of knitting a net of “social types”, where the complexities of history are reduced - even more than that of a single-focalized narrative – to a series of moral scenarios (Lee); to make things even more complicated, the correctives are made in the form of literal inverse of the stereotypical victim/villain distinction in lieu of a substantial and reasonable contextualization in terms of war, let alone the specific historical facts about Nanjing Massacre.

In this paper, I have not even touched upon the representational style of the traumas in City of Life and Death as I originally planned to, although it is indeed a crucial issue and suggests another important speaking position of the film: commercialism in global market, embodied in the (un)conscious penchant for Hollywoodian narrative, style and characterization somewhat discussed above. Since the film is produced by the state-run China Film Group, it is legitimate to associate the film with a symbolic embrace of the global capitalism, together the Hollywoodian humanism, on the cultural level. But the nationalistic opposition raised by the offended audiences is also cited as the reason for its missing the official national film awards in China.
     Under such circumstances, the discussions on the representation of the Nanjing Massacre can just too easily fall to the mandates of domestic/international politics. The imagination about the history is always countered with the expectation to “record historically”, which implies a didactic history. But cinema as another medium with different social functions deserves a different task. On the role played by filmmakers in representing history, especially “what is not presentable under the rules of knowledge” (208) in Holocaust, Anton Kaes writes: “It is the filmmaker who can shed light on the social imagination, perverse as it may be, that underlies the unspeakable deeds. (208)”

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