Reviewed today: Bare Essence Of Life, City Of Life And Death.
6.30pm: City Of Life And Death (trailer)
You know how these things can happen. You tell people you're taking a fortnight off work for the LFF, but part way through someone rings you up and asks you for a quick favour. You agree to give them two hours of your time on Wednesday morning, and without warning it suddenly escalates into two days.
So if you’ve been following these reports in real time, that’s where I’ve been since posting Monday’s diary. Being out at work has had an impact, not just on this blog, but also on the films I'm seeing. I ended up missing one movie today I’d already booked for – in case you’re interested, it was this one – and came to City Of Life And Death several minutes after it had started. Luckily for me there was an introduction beforehand by – huzzah! – Tony Rayns, otherwise I might have missed even more of one of the best films of this year.
It’s a matter of historical record that in 1937, the Japanese army invaded the Chinese capital of Nanjing, and most of the Chinese army fled the city shortly after. Lu Chuan’s film documents what was subsequently referred to as ‘the rape of Nanjing’ from a number of perspectives. On the Chinese side, there’s a resistance group led by Lu Jianxiong (Liu Ye): on the Japanese side, our token sympathetic soldier is Private Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi). Somewhere in the middle is Mr Tang (Fan Wei), the Chinese secretary to the local Nazi representative, and the man in charge of the refugee camp in the centre of the city. But when you’re dealing with an enemy that doesn’t believe in the Geneva Convention, that’s a dangerous place to be.
Lu Chuan was last at the LFF in 2004 with Kekexili, an incredibly visceral thriller set in some of the most inhospitable landscapes I've ever seen on film. City Of Life And Death has a similar gut-level punch to it. There have been films made about the Nanjing massacres in the past, ranging from the sentimental to the wholly exploitative: this film just throws the viewer into the middle of it all and leaves them to fend for themselves. No attempt is made to sugar-coat the atrocities that took place, but there’s no gloating at the violence either. This is just how people behave when all humanity is put to one side.
Lu’s decision to film in black and white is absolutely right for what he’s trying to do here. One audience member in the post-screening Q&A suggested that the lack of colour detracts from the impact, but if anything it intensifies it for me: as Lu said, all the historical records are in black and white, and having a screen that’s coated in red gore just distracts you from the human stories he’s trying to tell. His point is that this isn’t simply an attempt to demonise the Japanese (hence the inclusion of Kadokawa's viewpoint, which has infuriated some Chinese audiences): rather, it’s a more general story of what war does to all of us. It’s a stunning achievement, and should be caught when it gets a wider release. (Mind you, Kekexili’s idea of a wider release was one cinema in London, so be prepared to have to work to hunt this one down.)
8.45pm: Bare Essence Of Life (trailer)
It has to be said, after a couple of hours watching the Japanese army raping women and murdering children, I wasn’t really sure if I was in the mood for a frothy Japanese comedy. It’s a testament to writer/director Satoko Yokohama that she managed to turn my opinion around fairly smartly.
In the words of its original Japanese title, this is an Ultra-Miracle Love Story. Machiko (Kumiko Aso) is a schoolteacher who’s moved from Tokyo to a village in Aomori, while she gets over the decapitation of her former boyfriend. Yojin (Kenichi Matsuyama, star of last week’s Kamui) is a hyperactive lad who earns a living growing vegetables. His twitchy nature can be offputting to people in general, and women in particular: but when he discovers by chance that pesticide has a beneficial effect on his personality, his chances of wooing Machiko increase dramatically. Unfortunately, there are other side effects.
Satoko Yokohama was at the LFF last year with her debut feature German + Rain, and her followup is similarly based around an outsider trying to make the rest of the world accept them without compromise. In this case, however, it could be said that Yojin does compromise in a way. But he's depicted as someone who does everything entirely on his own terms, not letting minor problems like living in a potting shed or pesticide poisoning get in the way of his dreams.
German + Rain ran for just over an hour, and had a few longeurs despite its compact length: Bare Essence Of Life is almost double that. It’s a more carefully developed version of the mix of whimsy and surrealism seen in Yokohama’s debut, but still feels a bit overstretched in parts. Nevertheless, it has oodles of charm, several delightful performances (including the precocious kids Machiko teaches), and a berserk final sequence that shouldn’t really be as moving as it turns out to be. It’s nice to see the LFF supporting a fledgling director’s early work like this, and I hope they don’t stop now.