The first thing we see in Lu Chuan's "City of Life and Death" are Japanese tanks obliterating the medieval wall that in 1937 bordered the city of Nanking.
The movie is full of memorable, powerful, portentous images, and this is one - the mechanized and modern world smashing into a cloistered China by no means prepared for it.
The catastrophe that follows is a strikingly photographed (and horribly graphic), black-and-white account of the infamous rape of Nanking - the organized murder and abuse of several hundred thousand Chinese civilians and soldiers, an ugly historic chapter that still inspires dangerous passions in Japan and China.
Case in point: Some Chinese moviegoers protested its 2010 release because writer-director Lu Chuan had taken pains to humanize some of the Japanese soldiers. Indeed, one of his most impressive dramatic inventions is a terrified Japanese infantryman (Hideo Nakaizumi) slowly driven mad by his participation in an escalating series of horrors.
The idea of semisympathetic Japanese characters so inflamed some Chinese moviegoers that the Chinese government interceded to keep the movie in theaters - something like the opposite of censorship.
The movie went on to become one of the highest-grossing movies of the year in China. This is not surprising when you see how shrewdly Lu Chuan deploys ideas from sources as good as Steven Spielberg and William Styron, while making the material very much his own.
The artful use of black and white photography to capture atrocities draws inevitable comparisons to "Schindler's List," as does a story line that follows a German diplomat, John Rabe, who established a safe zone and attempted to save as many civilians as possible.
As these gambits fail and Rabe is driven out (recalled by Nazi leadership allying with Japan), it is the Chinese civilians who must make impossible decisions - who will live, who will die, even among their own families.
"City" and Nanking are poised in a peculiar spot between World War I and World War II, with themes related to both, ingeniously knitted together by Lu Chuan. We see the impersonal slaughter made possible by 20th-century weapons, and we see antecedents of organized atrocities that would be repeated and amplified a few years later in Europe.
One example: "City of Life and Death" depicts the Japanese practice of forcing women to serve as sex slaves to occupying soldiers, leading to some of the movie's most harrowing scenes. Like nothing you've seen, or hope to see again.
Lu Chuan takes a gamble in turning some of these "comfort women" into martyrs. After invoking "Sophie's Choice" and Schindler, it's hard to comfortably switch gears to nationalism and bravado - we also see a Chinese man (Fan Wei) refusing a blindfold, asking for a cigarette, shouting defiant slogans to a firing squad.
Lu Chuan regains his footing in the final sequence - Nakaizumi escorting Chinese men to an uncertain fate. It's poised between insanity and morality, where "City of Life and Death" creates some unforgettable moments.