dance critic and cineaste Mindy Aloff has graciously contributed this entry
From China and Hong Kong, this Homeric black-and-white feature, originally titled Nanjing! Nanjing!, dramatizes the Japanese army’s 1937-38 invasion and destruction of what was then China’s capital city, an event sometimes referred to as “the rape of Nanking,” one of the twentieth century’s most horrific massacres of combatants and civilians, numbering in the hundreds of thousands. For those who have read the 1997 history by Iris Chang (or even the Wikipedia page on the subject), the picture will seem somewhat sanitized as reporting. The invaders engaged in an orgy of atrocities—documented by eyewitnesses in journals, letters, photographs, and even some film—against what was essentially a defenseless population, the city having been abandoned and the surrounding environs scorched for strategic reasons by the Chinese general Chiang Kai-shek. Lu Chuan, who wrote as well as directed the movie, his fourth feature, was subject to governmental censorship, and China’s own role in leaving the city so vulnerable goes unremarked.
Even so, Chuan’s is a brave film as well as a stunningly well-made one. Its cinematography (Cao Yu) and editing (Teng Yu) approach the optical power of early Russian silents; however, the story’s emotional power stems from Lu’s scenario and handling of people, his magnificent balance of crowds against individuals. And his piercingly laconic script permits the brilliant actors an array of counterintuitive choices in their gestures and nuanced expressions, which, in context, read as complexities verging on paradox. A husband’s broad smile becomes an icon of tragedy. A soldier’s boyish enthusiasm at seeing a beautiful girl becomes an icon of butchery. A man sitting in a field of vibrant flowers becomes a horrific realization of inhumanity. Every element tells. A single note of a querulous flute makes one’s blood run quite, quite cold.