That covers it pretty nicely. For those of us who have become numb to Holocaust movies because there have simply been so many of them, City of Life and Death is a revelation, taking another human atrocity from history and making it fresh and vital.
Written and directed by Lu Chuan, The City of Life and Death is a startling historical epic, as brilliantly well-made as it is sociologically astute, set during the 1937 Japanese occupation of the walled Chinese city of Nanking. Latterly exposed in books and documentary films as China’s “forgotten holocaust,” the siege of Nanking brought with it a series of unspeakable (if all too common) atrocities committed by the occupiers against the occupied: the murder of hundreds of thousands of civilians; the rape of tens of thousands of women and underage girls; and, in one of the film’s most bloodcurdling scenes, the point-blank assassination of wounded Chinese soldiers in a convalescent hospital.
Shooting in black-and-white wide screen, Lu opens with a bravura combat sequence styled after Saving Private Ryan, but the moral ambiguity of what follows owes more to Clint Eastwood’s Iwo Jima diptych, with its unblinking depiction of heroism and barbarism, compromise and betrayal on all sides.
If the film's opening recalls Saving Private Ryan, then much of what happens afterward is closer to Spielberg's Schindler's List: one startling black-and-white passage after another, with each sequence revealing people's best and worst instincts in poetic, understated images. But unlike Schindler's List, City of Life and Death is almost completely devoid of sentimental moments. There's no straightforward narrative to speak of -- the movie simply unfolds, and characters come in and out of the story like an expert ensemble drama.
One way to measure that a movie is working on me is when I start to lose sense of time and place -- I forget I'm in a theater, and I can't quite figure out how long I've been immersed in the film. That happened pretty quickly in City of Life and Death. I can't say enough about this amazing movie. If you can, see it, and try to see it in a theater -- the bigger the screen, the better.