How best to honour on film the hundreds of thousands of civilians killed and raped when the Japanese army captured China’s then-capital Nanking in 1937? City of Life and Death (2010) made an honourable attempt to register in realist terms the scale of the atrocities, but this latest from master filmmaker Zhang Yimou uses historical circumstances as the basis for a fable about the meaning of decency.
Travelling mortician Christian Bale arrives to bury the priest previously in charge of the Catholic Church where teenage Chinese female students are sheltering from the carnage. Initially reluctant to get involved, he turns protector by passing himself off as a priest, and soon has the local courtesans taking refuge on holy ground too.
Adeptly structured to make the most of the implied threat in the city streets beyond, the story overturns conventional morality as it explores authentic heroism – all visualised with flamboyant panache by the maker of House of Flying Daggers. (Notes by Trevor Johnston.)