China's 'City' of pain finally in N.Y.

When “City of Life and Death” makes its New York debut Wednesday, it will mark the culmination of a long journey for the sweeping wartime drama that centers on the Nanjing Massacre of 1937.

With imagery evocative of Holocaust newsreels, Chinese writer-director Lu Chuan painstakingly re-created that dark episode in which invading Japanese forces occupied China’s then-capital and brutally slaughtered hundreds of thousands of disarmed soldiers and civilians.

The massacre is seared into the collective memory of the Chinese people, and the film performed well in the country when it was released in 2009. But it also drew criticism for depicting the Japanese in too human a light as the helmer sought to capture the complexities of war and its impact on soldiers.

Now — two years after its 2009 out-of-competition screening in Cannes, its premiere at the Toronto fest a few months later and its controversial withdrawal by the China Film Group from the Palm Springs fest the same year — distributor Kino Lorber will roll out the film in North America.

“City’s” journey began with Lu fighting to raise money for the inherently controversial film. He pieced funding together from various sources in China. Challenges continued throughout production, and Lu repeatedly had to calm investors’ anxieties during six months of set construction, 253 days of shooting and nine months of post-production — all while insisting on an authentic re-creation of the wartime period.

“I had to convince the producers to allow me to use black and white,” said Lu. “Black and white has an almost religious power.” To create a subtle, textured look, d.p. Cao Yu shot on color film stock then desaturated the color in post.

Production designers Hao Yi and Lin Chaoxiang discovered locations such as an abandoned chemical factory and a 160-year-old Christian church. Most of the filming was handheld; nothing was shot on a soundstage.

During the lengthy post period in Beijing, Lu devoted much of his attention to the soundtrack, which contains ethereal audio effects and relatively little music. He rejected the first two months of work by sound designer Lai Qizhen, who had assembled sounds of rifles and machine guns from the 1940s and after.

“These might sound more powerful and exciting, but I wanted real sounds from the period,” Lu said. “I almost made him crazy.” He and Lai rented firearms from the 1930s, fired them off and recorded the sounds.

Adding to the film’s power and realism was the use of 30,000 extras, a feat that can be achieved in China through cooperation with the army. “We call it the military budget,” Lu said. “The extras are Chinese army soldiers. The ones playing Japanese troops were trained by former military officers I invited over from Japan.”

Lu is disappointed that “City” isn’t being shown in Japan, where the Nanjing Massacre is largely denied. “I wanted to achieve this, but we can’t find anyone in Japan willing to distribute this movie,” Lu said.

In North America, following its Gotham and L.A. debuts, Kino Lorber hopes to maximize the film’s bigscreen window before taking it to VOD and Blu-ray, the shingle’s Richard Lorber said. “It should be seen in a cinematic environment. It may not have mass appeal, but people will be talking about it.”

Bookings & Signings

Paradigm signed line producer Michael Stricks (“Bored to Death”); editors Sheri Bylander (“Lights Out”), Ryan Folsey (“When in Rome”) and Elena Maganini (“Dexter”); d.p. Marco Pontecorvo (“Game of Thrones:); and stunt coordinator-second unit director Steve Ritzi (“Jonah Hex”).

Agency booked exec producers Todd Arnow on Oliver Stone’s “Savages” and Barbara Kelly on Erik Van Looy’s “The Loft”; producers Neal Ahern on Fox’s “Terra Nova” and Leanne Moore on HBO pilot “More as This Story Develops”; d.p. Julio Macat on Aram Rappaport’s “Syrup”; editors Todd Desrosiers on AMC’s “Hell on Wheels,” Jeff Ford on Joss Whedon’s “The Avengers,” Jeff Freeman on Seth MacFarlane’s “Ted,” Tirsa Hackshaw on Showtime’s “House of Lies,” Melissa Kent on Duane Adler’s “Cobu 3D: New York Nights” and Padraic McKinley on Gabriele Muccino’s “Playing the Field”; production designers Charles Breen on Ray Bengston’s “To Have and to Hold” and Jonathan Carlson on Ryûhei Kitamura’s “No One Lives”; and costume designer Melissa Brunning on Taylor Hackford’s “Parker.”

Want to comment or suggest a column topic? Email peter.caranicas@variety.com

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