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Now a movie that takes a fictional approach to a horrific historical event. In 1937, the Japanese army stormed the Chinese city of Nanking. More than 200,000 people, many of them civilians, were raped and killed. The movie called "City of Life and Death," is opening in some U.S. theaters after causing controversy in both China and Japan.
Howie Movshovitz of Colorado Public Radio spoke with the Chinese man behind the film.
HOWIE MOVSHOVITZ: "City of Life and Death" lives up to its title.
(Soundbite of movie, "City of Life and Death")
(Soundbite of scream)
(Soundbite of gunfire)
MOVSHOVITZ: In documentary-like black and white, writer-director Lu Chuan shows the systematic murder of thousands of Chinese soldiers - some machine gunned, some marched into the sea, some burned, some buried alive. Then the invaders turn to the civilian population and the process of killing continues.
Lu Chuan says he wanted to show that the Japanese had a program for killing.
Mr. LU CHUAN (Writer and Director): I really wanted to show that the massacre is just like industry. It's just like a machine, you know? It used a very complicated program to control the whole machine to eliminate the enemies. So it's just a human being, you know, can design such a complicated program to kill people, you know. It's a very brutal nature.
MOVSHOVITZ: Lu Chuan interviewed some of the Japanese soldiers who occupied Nanking.
Mr. CHUAN: Basically, they don't want to face their memory. But some of them tell me the truth. But I should say, to my surprise, they didn't show any regret. They just say something about: Yes, I kill people. Yes, I rape some girls. But you know, everybody do that. So I have to do that. But they never say sorry. They never feel regret. So, for me, it's a very bad experience, you know.
MOVSHOVITZ: Nevertheless, one of the central characters in "City of Life and Death" is a sympathetic Japanese soldier. And this turned many Chinese against the film.
Mr. CHUAN: This film aroused many, many huge arguments, you know. Lots of the audience - Chinese audience, really hate this movie because I choose the angle of Japanese soldier, you know.
The traditional history education gives most of the Chinese people a feeling that Japanese people are beasts; they're not human beings just like us. So, in my movie, I show the humanity of Japanese soldier. So the Chinese audience cannot accept it.
MOVSHOVITZ: Lu Chuan got death threats. Still, a lot of people went to see the film in China. One reason Lu shows the innate decency of the Japanese soldier is to create a complex portrait of human behavior instead of an indictment of one nation or culture.
Richard Pena, program director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, says that "City of Life and Death" really includes three points of view: that of Japanese soldiers, the Chinese in Nanking and the observations of Westerners in the city displayed on postcards as they chronicled the invasion.
Mr. RICHARD PENA (Program Director, Film Society of Lincoln Center): I think a lot of it has to do with the notion of witnessing. I mean, if there's one concept that I think really unites the aesthetic principle of the film, it is that of witnessing.
And, you know, for a long time under the People's Republic, it was practically forbidden to talk about because it was seen really in many ways as a symbol of Chinese weakness. The fact that so few Japanese had been able to terrorize, humiliate and murder so many Chinese was seen in an uncomfortable light.
So this film offers, you know, in ways that some people support and some people don't, a kind of varied position on it. And I think in the end the idea that films like this are made and made in such a way that really not only, how could you say, excite emotions but incite thought, incite reflection, incite meditation, that's what's great. And that gives you hope. That gives you hope that, you know, we're better than that was.
MOVSHOVITZ: For filmmaker Lu Chuan, the shifting points of view, the surprises and ambiguities in this film are central to the story he wants to tell. He's made a violent war film because he hates violence and war. And he made a film in which one group of people brutalizes another to show that all people are capable of both horror and remorse.
Mr. CHUAN: I think everybody is the Japanese soldier, everybody is Japanese soldier. You know, in our heart there's several kinds of desires, some of them are good, some of them are bad. But in the war, the desire which can push us to do bad things comes out.
MOVSHOVITZ: Besides Japanese soldiers who'd been in Nanking, Lu Chuan talked to Chinese survivors. He read journals and diaries and he even made a trip to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., to see how the killing in Europe is remembered. He says that what he saw through the making of "City of Life and Death" did not comfort him.
Mr. CHUAN: During the process, making this movie, I felt I open many, many doors toward the darkness of the heart, you know? So every - I open the door, I go deeper and deeper to the soul, to the soul of humanity. So I feel, sometimes I was scared. I'm really scared, you know.
MOVSHOVITZ: Yet what's most surprising about "City of Life and Death" is that after all of the horror and fear, some people find the strength to go on.
For NPR News, I'm Howie Movshovitz.
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