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A view on Blu-ray and DVD video by Leonard Norwitz

City of Life and Death [Blu-ray]


(Lu Chuan, 2009)



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Review by Leonard Norwitz



Theatrical: Media Asia

Blu-ray: Media Asia Group (HK)



Region: FREE! (as verified by the Momitsu region FREE Blu-ray player)

Runtime: 2:15:13.041

Disc Size: 48,295,933,092 bytes

Feature Size: 36,028,643,328 bytes

Video Bitrate: 24.98 Mbps

Chapters: 20

Case: Standard Blu-ray case

Release date: October 30th, 2009



Aspect ratio: 2.35:1

Resolution: 1080p / 24 fps

Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC Video




Dolby TrueHD Audio Chinese 2053 kbps 7.1 / 48 kHz / 2053 kbps / 16-bit (AC3 Core: 5.1 / 48 kHz / 640 kbps)
Dolby TrueHD Audio Chinese 1958 kbps 7.1 / 48 kHz / 1958 kbps / 16-bit (AC3 Core: 5.1 / 48 kHz / 640 kbps)
Dolby Digital Audio Chinese 640 kbps 5.1 / 48 kHz / 640 kbps
Dolby Digital Audio Chinese 640 kbps 5.1 / 48 kHz / 640 kbps



English, Chinese (traditional and simplified), none



• Behind the Scenes – in SD (1:47:40)

• Trailer in HD



The Film:

The scars that have devolved on succeeding generations from the Japanese Imperial Army’s “Rape of Nanking” on the eve of World War II have gained prominence in the news of recent years. We recall how the Japanese government has only been able to go so far in recognizing a national culpability. A book of that title written by Iris Chang came into prominence three times at least – the first time upon publication in 1997, on the suicide of its author in 2004, and again at the release of an incendiary documentary inspired by her book in 2007, the year that it was at last published in a Japanese translation. Given raw feelings are on both sides 70 years after the destruction of the city, the prospect of a mainstream feature film dealing with that period is likely to be met with concern and trepidation. The wonder is that director Lu Chuan finds humanity in the suffering on both sides, and has made a film both impossible to watch and yet hypnotically seductive.

Betsy Sharkey notes in her piece in the L.A. Times writes:
"Chuan follows both the occupiers and the captives with equal sensitivity, for there are victims and villains on both sides, as the Japanese soldiers, some barely men, soon find that there is little justice in power. The film unfolds like a novel with chapters that are each book-ended by the acceptance of death, the price of living. The sadness of that structure is only that at each stage there is the loss of characters you've come to love. Truly a masterpiece in black and white and pain and bound to be among the foreign films that will be headed to the Academy Awards."

Excerpt of review from L.A. Times located HERE

Image: 9/9
The first number indicates a relative level of excellence compared to other Blu-ray video discs on a ten-point scale. The second number places this image along the full range of DVD and Blu-ray discs.

Most unusual for a mainstream feature film these days, let alone one from China, City of Life and Death is photographed in luminous, yet gritty black & white, every shot like wartime photojournalism in stop motion. The image is transferred to Blu-ray with little evidence of its having made the trip. There is occasional mild edge-enhancement and selective DNR but, by and large, cinematographer Cao Yu’s documentary approach is captured intact: sharpness and detail is excellent, contrast and tonality is simply stunning – by turns horrific, intimate and magisterial, always emotionally riveting. As I scanned the disc searching for frames to capture, I was saturated with a relentless series of spellbinding images. It was difficult to make choices, since every shot is beautifully conceived for maximum impact.















Audio & Music: 9/8
Bear with me as I ease into this. It’s unusual for a DUB to be presented in an uncompressed format, but so it is here. Not that I can tell Mandarin from Cantonese, yet there is a subtle synch difference that I check just to reassure myself. Indeed, the main spoken languages spoken are Mandarin and Japanese (with occasional English by Western missionaries), so that is the mix I watched the movie with. Dialogue struck me as crisp and I was convinced that if I knew what was being said it was be completely intelligible. Battle scenes are impressively mounted and the audio supports it with appropriate crash and thunder – but not overstated as in a typical action film. Surrounds come into play right from the outset as a soldier awakens to the noise of war in quick succession from back to front, above and all around, while the weapons, vehicles and planes responsible slide into view. No matter how dense the mix, dialogue and subtle effects come through cleanly. The soundstage is always convincingly filled with the ambience of the scene before us: whether the interior of an abandoned church or the crunch of soldiers walking carefully across the rubble a street hit with mortar fire. Listen for the sound of a crowd of people as it whooshes by – like an ocean wave.


Operations: 3
Perhaps I've been watching too many episodes of Lost lately, but my Oppo's remote seemed to have some mysterious difficulty with this disc: When I would bring up the subtitle option during the Behind the Scenes Extra Feature, my remote was unable to either choose any of the possibilities, nor was it able to let go of the window. Eventually I had to reload the disc. Curiously and happily enough this problem did not occur during playback of the feature film. I checked out the extra feature again, and the problem still obtained. Weird. Subtitles are in white, easy to read and do not intrude much into our attention in the scene. I can't speak to their accuracy, though there was one occasion where I was confused as to which side was saying what.



Extras: 5
In addition to a trailer for the feature film in HD, there is a hour and three-quarter-long behind the scenes documentary, a good deal of which focuses on the preparation of cast and crew for specific scenes. I was unable to


Bottom line: 9
Lu Chuan's City of Life and Death, like Beethoven's String Quartet in C# Minor and Picasso's Guernica, is not a work we can or should take lightly. Despite its superb imagery and audio, I warn against the use of fragments of the movie for demo, such is its artistic integrity and emotional power. Highly, but cautiously recommended.

Leonard Norwitz
December 28th, 2009





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About the Reviewer: I first noticed that some movies were actually "films" back around 1960 when I saw Seven Samurai (in the then popular truncated version), La Strada and The Third Man for the first time. American classics were a later and happy discovery.

My earliest teacher in Aesthetics was Alexander Sesonske, who encouraged the comparison of unlike objects. He opened my mind to the study of art in a broader sense, rather than of technique or the gratification of instantaneous events. My take on video, or audio for that matter – about which I feel more competent – is not particularly technical. Rather it is aesthetic, perceptual, psychological and strongly influenced by temporal considerations in much the same way as music. I hope you will find my musings entertaining and informative, fun, interactive and very much a work in progress.

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