'City' is an excursion into the heart of darkness.
CITY OF LIFE AND DEATH ★★★★ out of four stars
Unrated by the MPAA; wartime violence, including atrocities and sexual assault, brief nudity. In subtitled Mandarin and Japanese, and English. • Theater: Lagoon.
In 1937, Japanese infantry overran China's capital, Nanjing, killing some 300,000 civilians and soldiers in a six-week massacre of unprecedented barbarism. The event, still a raw nerve in Sino-Japanese relations, has been called "The Forgotten Holocaust." Chinese director Lu Chuan's monumental drama "City of Life and Death" is a harrowing excursion to the heart of that darkness.
Filmed in stark black-and-white, Lu's drama chronicles the stubborn resistance of the final few Chinese foot soldiers, the slaughter following the walled city's fall and the transformation of pulverized Nanjing into a vast concentration camp. Lu tells the heartbreaking, nearly unbearable story with compassion, controlled fury and unflinching realism. It opens with a stunning 45-minute combat scene that turns the dust-choked cityscape into a deep circle of hell and puts us square in the crossfire. We meet battle-hardened Chinese foot soldier Hianxiong (Liu Ye), child soldier Xiaodouzi (Bin Liu) and Sgt. Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi), a conflicted and remorseful young Christian Japanese soldier whose conscience is tried beyond endurance. Among the civilians are John Rabe (John Paisley), the real-life German businessman and Nazi Party member who became the refugees' protector, naively expecting his Axis allies to spare Chinese refugees inside a "safe zone."
The random madness of slaughter is harrowing to behold even for the victors. Kadokawa, who enters the film shielding his eyes against the rising sun, is finally able to open his eyes to see what is happening around him. Brutalized by his army's orgy of violence, he declares with remorse, "Life is more difficult than death," before making a redemptive moral choice. Lu's powerful, remarkable film balances the drama of individual conscience, the spectacle of mass destruction and the responsibility of re-creating history.
I count the exuberantly violent "Kick-Ass," "Funny Games" and "Straw Dogs" among my favorite movies, yet I can't get behind "Hobo With a Shotgun," a schlocky exercise in audience torture. The problem isn't the drenching bloodshed; the problem is the giggling sadism with which it's presented. Like last summer's "Machete," this is another spinoff from the fake coming attractions in "Grindhouse," and hopefully the last of that superfluous breed. The movie casts Rutger Hauer as an addled yet noble derelict who brings pump-gun justice to a town full of overacting drug dealers, dirty cops and pedophile Santas.
"Hobo" is a sendup of 1980s Troma films, which were themselves punk lampoons of action and horror flicks of the era before. Thus, "Hobo" tries to make a joke about a joke. This is both pointless and a foolproof recipe for failure. Hauer just wants to mow people's lawns and get along, but he's prodded into buckshot vigilantism by the town's sadistic ruling family. Soon he's blowing chunks off of bad guys. The movie just blows chunks. If seeing a bus full of shrieking schoolchildren getting flame-throwered isn't your ideal Friday night, you might want to give this one a pass.
John Hawkes, Oscar-nominated last year as an ominous heavy in "Winter's Bone," is a dimpled, impish charmer in this new film. He plays Stan Herd, a renowned Kansas crop artist. Herd buys his artists' equipment at Fleet Farm and the John Deere dealership, plowing and planting fields in intricate patterns that look like representational paintings when viewed from above.
The film is set in 1993, when the financially strapped Herd literally bet the farm on a New York City project he hoped would win him the national attention he sought for years. Herd set to work on a barren Manhattan plot where Donald Trump would shortly build a high-rise. He encounters damaged, skeptical and hostile homeless men squatting on the property but gradually wins them over to his plan, giving their lives direction as they help transform the site into a living work of art. The story has dramatic reversals, humor, suspense and plenty of colorful, eccentric characters.
Hawkes plays Herd as a kind, utterly impractical visionary who tests his levelheaded wife's patience endlessly. Hawkes, born in Alexandria, Minn., clearly understands this rural dreamer. At first he appears to be a sunny Mr. Deeds type, bound to beat adversity through good cheer and can-do spirit. Writer/director Chris Ordal allows the story to deepen and darken as it grows, showing that an artist's drive to reach his goal at any cost can wind up costing far more than expected. Hawkes makes Herd's irresponsibility in every area outside his art funny and a touch tragic.