Chinese films have something in them that is very unique yet extremely difficult to explain at times. The same can be said about City of Life and Death, which is written, directed and executive produce by Lu Chuan (The Missing Gun, Mountain Patrol: Kekexili).

The film, originally released in China in 2009, was shot in Cinemascope and is in black and white from beginning to end. This is what makes City of Life and Death so special and intriguing.

Depicting a story based on true events that occurred in the late 1930s, Lu reaches soaring heights with his third feature film. To be precise, it is a war movie portraying the nationwide rivalry and struggle during the Japanese occupation of the capital city of Nanjing, China in December 1937, has been classified as “The Rape of Nanking” or the “Nanking Massacre.”

City of Life and Death begins with film footage of war letters and postcards that serve as proof that an attack by the Imperial Japanese Army was coming to Nanjing. The Japanese brutally executed attacks on all of those residing in Nanjing. To place a stop to the deaths, a Safety Zone was created while views were assessed. Sacrifices were made and additional crimes occur, as some gain wins and others suffer defeat.

There are a multitude of languages spoken throughout the two-hour film: Mandarin, Japanese, German and Shanghainese – all with English subtitles. Don’t be alarmed though, as this asset is not boring or annoying. The various languages and subtitles give the film a flourishing touch.

City of Life and Death stars Liu Ye, Hideo Nakaizumi and Qin Lan – who all deliver impeccable and unforgettable performances. Each breathes life into his/her character.

An immensely vivid plot also adds to the film. The way in which Chinese soldiers, civilian men and both American and European refugees are depicted is beautifully stunning. Death is not option for them. Rather, courage and bravery rule.

With the recorded witness testimony utilized from some real-life survivors of these catastrophic events, City of Life and Death is an epic film. Lu Chuan delivers an ambitious drama for the ages.

Grade: B+

City of Life and Death releases in select theaters June 17.