Nanjing: A journey to hell


Tihar Jail
Oct 2, 2009
Nanjing: A journey to hell

China's most controversial film, Nanjing, Nanjing! City of Life and Death, about the 1937 massacre of the city, is now opening in the UK.

Half its crew quit during filming, two of its actors are now in exile and its release prompted a wave of death threats for its director. Now, China's most controversial film is coming to the UK.
Lu Chuan, the boyish 39-year-old director of Nanjing, Nanjing! City of Life and Death, is blunt about the making of his movie. "It was a journey to hell," he says. Viewers of the film may feel the same way. For two hours and ten minutes, Lu's film plunges into the horror of the rape of Nanjing, a massacre that has been largely forgotten in the West, but is still painfully raw in Chinese minds.
When Nanjing fell to the Japanese on December 13, 1937, a six week orgy of violence was unleashed that rivalled the worst atrocities of the Second World War.
Japanese soldiers buried civilians alive, sometimes leaving their upper bodies exposed and letting dogs rip them apart. They nailed prisoners to wooden boards and ran them over with tanks or horses, or stabbed them with long needles.
They hung Chinese victims by their tongues, or burned them in their houses. Tens of thousands of women were raped and mutilated, with some pregnant women having their babies torn from their bodies.
Years later, the International Military Tribunal of the Far East estimated that more than 260,000 civilians died. Some experts place the figure at well over 350,000. Either way, more people died in Nanjing than in the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.
What happened in Nanjing still burns in Chinese minds, especially because of the widespread denial of the massacre in Japan. And while there have been countless Communist propaganda films about the event, Lu's attempt at a candid and nuanced re-telling was a step too far for many Chinese cinema-goers.
"Before we started making the movie, we really did not have any concerns about what might happen. I did not think of the possible consequences," he says. Within the first week, the death threats began to arrive.
"I want to kill you by dismemberment," read one email. Another promised to castrate him. "Lu Chuan is a liar, a traitor, a scum among Chinese people," wrote one critic on one of the countless internet message boards that berated the film. "He has downplayed a historic tragedy and tried to cover up the truth," he added.
Only the personal support of Li Changchun, the powerful Communist party propaganda chief, kept the film running in cinemas, according to Lu. Even then, Nanjing Nanjing! lasted under three weeks in theatres, playing to around three million people and making Lu one of only five directors in China to make more than 100 million yuan (£10 million) at the box office.
"It was all quite scary," he says now. "The response was overwhelming, all the criticism and the scolding. Even my teachers from film school attacked it." What ignited the fury? "They basically could not accept that I tried to portray Japanese soldiers as humans, rather than beasts."
Lu cast Hideo Nakaizumi as Kadokawa, a Japanese haunted by his inability to stop the slaughter ordered by his superior officers. "I just thought it was the right thing to do," says Lu. "I thought I could deliver a new message and perhaps persuade some people who had mistaken ideas about the war. Japanese soldiers also paid a price during the war, and that theme got me the most criticism."
Lu, who studied at an army university in Nanjing, had nursed the idea for the film since 2003, but quickly ran into problems. "I lost hope many times, and turned to other projects, but I could not concentrate on them," he says. "I found my first backer in September 2006, and we got the permit to make the movie the following year." Government censors only asked for minor changes to his script: a scene of Japanese soldiers beheading Chinese was deleted, as was one of a woman strapped to a chair to be raped and a conversation between a Japanese commander and a Chinese prisoner that revealed compassion on the part of the Japanese.
"The very fact that the movie got a permit shows that the Chinese government has made baby steps in tolerating and embracing the different, the controversial and original," Lu says, while remarking that the attacks on the film from the Chinese media and intellectuals were not on the orders of the Communist party.
Filming took place in a mock-up of Nanjing on the outskirts of the Northern city of Changchun. The eight-month shoot was difficult. "Half our crew, over 100 people, left. They could not handle the pressure and the emotional stress," he says. "Gao Yuanyuan, the leading actress, ended up depressed, often staying away and shutting herself up. It was very hard for her. Often she was cut ten or 20 times and then we had to do another take, in front of everyone."
The bitterness between the Chinese and Japanese came alive again on set. "There was always an invisible line between the Japanese actors and the rest of the crew," says Lu. "They had a very tough time too, being attacked both in China and in Japan. Two of them have now left Japan to live in China because of the hostility they faced at home. After they performed the rape scenes, they went mute for days."
With sparse dialogue, and a choppy plot, the movie is unrelenting on its audiences. However, Tom Stewart, the head of acquisitions at High Fliers, its UK distributor, says he bid for the movie even before its warm reception at the Cannes film festival last year. "One of the things I liked about it is that you are dropped into the middle of bedlam as a viewer and you cannot understand what is happening. The director told me he had shot the film in black and white because of all the blood there is in the film, and because he did not want to glamorise the violence. There have been a lot of comparisons, but the movie is unique. It has a lot of consciousness to it."
For Lu, a UK release is a redemption after the firestorm of the last year. "I feel the movie must be a success overseas. I am hoping that a good reception overseas will change the minds of the domestic media," he says.

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