I'm not a historian and my knowledge of the "rape of Nanjing" is, almost, non-existent.
I could trawl around the internet and then pass off the Wikipedia entry on the subject of my own in order to give this review some sort of, I don't know, academic kudos?
There really isn't any need for that.
While Lu Chuans film tells the story of what happened in 1937 when the Japanese besieged and then entered the ancient city it isn't a history lesson and it isn't important for you to know the back story.
"City of Life and Death" paints a vulgar picture using only shades of grey. The images that sear themselves into your mind are brutal, shocking and disturbing. The slaughter of the Chinese soldiers who survived the battle, herded like cattle onto the beach and then mown down by machine gun fire. The severed heads of captured and murdered soldiers hanging from ropes around the city. The rape of young women by mad eyed, crazed, lust filled Japanese. All of these. Then more.
Lu Chuan doesn't shy away from presenting the true horror of what occurred.
The scene that will haunt me for many months to come takes place when a group of Japanese are attempting to "borrow" some Chinese women, a small child tries to intervene by hitting the legs of one of the soldiers and is dealt with by being thrown to his death from window two or more floors up. The cinema was plunged into an even deeper silence, you could feel the atmosphere in the room change. It was a truly awful moment but one which was delivered with an honesty by the director that made it obvious that this wasn't a flourish but was, instead, an important moment...the casual nature of the soldiers actions are almost as shocking as what they led to.
This wasn't a film to be enjoyed but nor was it one that I had to endure. It wasn't a history lecture but it was educational. It cannot be categorised as entertainment but nor was it documentary. It didn't tell the story of one person so it wasn't a biopic. I suppose that it is closest to "Schindlers List" in its telling of an awful, terrible and dark episode in history. An episode that shows the depths to which human beings can sink. A salient tale, a cautionary tale at a time when events around the world show us that nothing has changed and that our capacity for brutality has not been dimmed despite the lessons from history.
An important film.