Top Ten Movies of 2011 — Number Six

There are human tragedies that are ultimately too enormous to be captured onscreen, but that, of course, doesn’t mean filmmakers should stop trying. Because sometimes, just often enough, they succeed in capturing some small slice of the unthinkable, some glimpse of the appalling capacity of human beings to treat the other members of their vast global tribe as if they were unthinking, unfeeling creatures for no other reason that the brief acquisition of the power to do so. Director Lu Chuan’s City of Life and Death plunges into the darkness of the Nanjing Massacre, a crime against humanity perpetrated on the cusp of World War II when the Japanese military occupied the capital city of the Republic of China as part of the Sino-Japanese War. Definite numbers are hard to determine, but reasonable conjecture asserts that as many as 300,000 people were killed in a span that lasted only about six weeks. Lu Chuan doesn’t try to graft some overarching story onto his piece, creating something that’s friendly to traditional narrative structure. Instead, he builds the film out of observational sequences that try to take in as much of the assembled horror as possible, hewing to a take that is fiercely honest while also sidestepping any sort of sensationalism. Despite the understandable temptation to do so, Lu Chuan doesn’t take pains to demonize the perpetrators of the worst offenses, in part because the actions are awful enough without overt manipulation, but also, it seems, as acknowledgment that the basest, cruelest parts of human nature sometimes overtake the best of men when unthinkable circumstances begin to unfold. City of Life and Death is not a piece of work seeking condemnation nor even understanding. It just puts the brutality in front of the audience–literally in black and white–as a reminder of what happened that in and of itself should be enough warning to prevent such a thing from every occurring again.

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