An historical epic in the form of a gut punch, Lu Chuan's City of Life and Death, a harrowing dramatization of the 1937 Rape of Nanking, finally arrives in Los Angeles for a theatrical run this weekend, nearly two years after its 2009 AFI Fest premiere.

Opening in the middle of the initial three-day assault on China's then-capital by Japanese soldiers, and continuing through a six-week, systemic massacre that resulted in a six-figure body count, City's early, long, unbearably tense battle scenes quickly establish Lu's unblinking approach to atrocity.

The Japanese's various processes of mass extermination are intercut to reveal each to be as methodical as it is gruesome: The Chinese are burned alive, buried alive, machine-gunned from behind as they run into the sea, the women gang-raped to the point of death or, worse, catatonia. In between violent spectacles, the horror hardly subsides: Decapitated heads swing in the wind, beaches are blanketed with corpses, fires burn day and night.

Throughout, Lu cuts back and forth between individualizing close-ups and wide shots emphasizing the enormity of the massacre, the handheld camera work inflating the immediacy of documentary to CinemaScope scale. Within single scenes, gritty, matter-of-fact realism will meet highly theatric absurdity, until the constant rape and murder are put on pause for what amounts to a synchronized dance sequence.

We see much through the bleary eyes of Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi), a young Japanese soldier and natural observer who neither fully participates in the destruction nor intervenes. Naive enough to fall in love with the prostitute who takes his virginity (conferring a moment of tenderness that allows him to recognize the unbreakable stupor he's in), Kadokawa slowly comes to understand that moral and behavioral adaptation are survival skills with which he's not blessed. His basic human decency marks him as a relic in a world that has been totally rescrambled, so that actions that would qualify as evil under any other circumstance are not only justifiable but celebrated.

But inherently good people can't just play bad and expect to get away with it. Take the case of Mr. Tang, the Chinese aide to a Nazi who has established a “safety zone” for refugees, who sells out the safety of hundreds in an attempt to protect his own family. This horribly backfires, but Lu takes no pleasure in karmic retribution: His is a vision of war as rotten to the core, with no victors, only unspeakable sorrow.

A huge hit at home, City nonetheless was controversial for refusing to depict good and evil as a black-and-white question of nationality. In fact, the stunning black-and-white cinematography of near-hallucinogenic chaos even at times blurs the line between victim and aggressor.

That military conflict can turn anyone into a monster is War Movie 101. City of Life and Death's boldest political notion, particularly in light of the contemporary Chinese political situation, is that monstrosity is a sliding scale, encompassing the relative crimes of self-interest and cowardice, as well as bloodlust. When self-preservation fails, the only recourse for redemption is self-sacrifice.

CITY OF LIFE AND DEATH | Written and directed by LU CHUAN | Kino International | Nuart

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