City of Life and Death

By Joacim Blomqvist.

The Swedish general elections of September 2010, confirmed that Sweden is becoming a less tolerant society in many ways. For the first time a xenophobic nationalist party entered the parliament of a country that has long been perceived, in an international perspective, as a transparent and democratic society. The Sweden Democrats won 20 seats to become the country’s sixth largest party. In addition, recent governments, of different political complexions, have several times been criticized for harsh manners in dealing with deportees, most recently in Amnesty International’s Annual Report 2011:

‘The Swedish authorities considered a large number of asylum applications to be “manifestly unfounded”. The accelerated asylum-determination procedures applied to these cases did not meet international standards for refugee protection. There were forcible returns to Iraq and Eritrea. Concerns remained about the thoroughness of police investigations into rape cases.’

The success of the nationalist right has had wide impact on the entire society and has also become very noticeable in local politics.

Results from the local elections 2010. Red indicate a municipality where the Sweden Democrats won at least one seat.

The former industrial city of Malmö in the south of Sweden (population: 250,000) is now in a process of structural adjustment towards a service and information based economy. It is a city with a heterogeneous, multi-ethnic population. Throughout the last hundred years or so, Malmö has been governed almost solely by a strong Social Democratic party. The author of a recent report published by a neo-liberal think tank jealously notes that ‘in 1949 Malmö was named The Mecca of Socialism’ (Segerfeldt 2010). The report’s title translates as ‘One Party City: Malmö’.

Although the local elections, held simultaneously with the elections to the national parliament, were again won by the Social Democrats in Malmö, something had happened in the city’s politics. The Sweden Democrats were so successful that they became the third largest party in the local assembly.

Add to this the general feeling of anxiety, felt by many immigrants, generated by two disparate events motivated by racism in 2010-2011:

During the autumn of 2010, local and national media reported about a maniac shooting at immigrants in Malmö. A connection was established between a series of shootings taking place over a couple of years’ time. A young woman was shot dead near a local mosque, an imam was shot several times, also outside a mosque, a group of African men were targeted outside a bath house. Eventually a 38-year old Swedish-Finnish man with Asperger syndrome was arrested, accused of one murder and seven attempted murders. He was described as ‘politically incorrect’.

Then, in the spring of 2011, students in Malmö’s neighbouring city Lund arranged a shocking spectacle, ‘an auction block’, where three students with ropes around their necks and painted blackfaces were ‘sold’ during a student club ceremony (all designed as a macabre minstrel show). The incident was reported to the police by a member of staff at Malmö University, Jallow Momodou, active in the Society of African Swedes (Afrosvenskarnas Riksförbund). In the following days Momodou found posters exhibited in different places in the cities of Malmö and Lund, with a manipulated portrait of himself wearing a chain around his neck and the phrase ‘Our negro-slave is on the run’.

Lund University, main building

Lund University, founded in 1666, is considered to be one of Sweden’s elite universities, and it is a scholarly institution of international reputation. Therefore, there was more or less a consensus among national commentators that it should have been unthinkable for such a thing to take place here. In other places, a similar event might have lead to civil unrest and riots, but not in Sweden. No one intervened until this demonstration of racism was reported, first by a student newspaper and then in a series of articles in local and national media, several days later.

The trend towards increased xenophobia has been noticeable for a long time. In the wake of these vicious expressions of racism I took the initiative to create a forum, Critical Film Studies, in Malmö for the study of film as anti-racist politics and social science. I was joined and supported by teachers from the Language, Migration and Society department at Malmö University, the workers educational society ABF and the local branch of Folkets Bio (‘Peoples Cinema’), a non-profit organization for the exhibition and distribution of quality film.

The first project of the Critical Film Studies initiative was a film club called ‘Film – Politics – Consciousness’, that ran during the spring of 2011. Its sub theme was Asian conflicts, and we consciously selected films that question, in different ways, the set of normative perspectives that has dominated throughout the history of Anglo-Saxon and European motion pictures.

The films screened were Karhan Johar’s My Name is Khan (India), Lu Chuan’s City of Life and Death (China), Park Chan-wook’s Joint Security Area (South Korea) and the Turkish movie Valley of the Wolves: Palestine by Zübeyr Şaşmaz.

Thus, we hoped to catch some of Asia’s most important conflicts in the form of movies showing (from a North American or Western European perspective) alternative perspectives on identities of nationality, gender and class.

Ethnicity, class and gender in North American movies

We took as our starting point the notion of the gaze of the lens as a mirror that reflects the prevailing hierarchical system of a society, an idea put forward by a number of prominent culture and film scholars. The social hierarchy is primarily an economic hierarchy, where the lens’ gaze represents the upper social classes’ normative vision of the world. Groups who lack power inside this system also lacks faces, since their faces fall outside the focus of the lens. In this way, hierarchic systems will usually be reproduced by the movie narratives.

In the traditional western films, which were produced within the Hollywood studio system, Indians were usually faceless, not interesting to the film’s narrative other than as a backdrop. Their function was, according to the African American philosopher and scholar of cultural studies bell hooks, dictated by a white supremacy perspective, or by a middle-class white male hegemony related to the white heterosexual norm (‘John Wayne’) where most Indians, in for example John Ford’s westerns, were portrayed as irrational and faceless. If one watches movies like Fort Apache (1948), one is struck by how aimlessly Apache tribes seem to be carrying out their attacks (they ride like frantic chickens), while the cavalry always attacks in perfect formations.

Indians are either cruel faceless killers, or equally faceless victims – on the mental level of children. It may be portrayed as a tragedy, but nevertheless the Indians, according to the ‘natural’ laws of Social Darwinism, are to be repressed by the adult men of Western civilization, whose arms, as well as religion, are widely superior.

This has become a standard dramatic frame for a North American way of depicting conflicts. The enemy, who is essentially powerless, is either a faceless killer or a seemingly mentally retarded victim, to be repressed by the white supremacy of Western civilization; in the words of Joseph Conrad: ‘Exterminate all the brutes’ (Heart of Darkness).

The conflicts may vary. The indigenous American enemy can be replaced by African Americans or Japanese, Vietnamese or Arab (Moslem) adversaries. Most recently, in the Pentagon-defrayed propaganda film World Invasion: Battle Los Angeles (2011), the Arab enemy was given a transparent extraterrestrial guise.

Enemies that in relative terms have power inside the United States, and that don’t threaten the ‘American Dream’, are treated in a different way. In movies depicting, for example the American civil war, the Confederates are never represented in the same way as the Native Americans.

Hollywood’s traditional portrayal of women reflects society’s views of gender. There is a lot of literature on this matter. Here I shall confine myself to note that since the lens’ gaze is the normative white male gaze, it is the camera’s eye that defines what a woman is. According to the French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, woman is the ‘Second Sex’, constructed in relation to the male norm. The female parts in American movies are varied, as are the characters and appearances of women, but they always correspond to what men find attractive or repulsive, given the currently applicable norm.

If Uma Thurman is incredibly good at swinging a kantana (a Japanese sword) in Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003), this is merely a reflection of male wishful thinking in the 21st century. In the same way Ingrid Bergman’s way of dealing with Humphrey Borgart in Michael Curtiz’ Casablanca (1942) was a mirror of the early 1940s gender system. In both cases: women get power on the silver screen, because men allow them to have it.

But if things get serious, if the nation is threatened, then women are banished from the public sphere to the private, as is excellently described by the American journalist Susan Faludi in her book The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America. Before 11 September 2001, women played active parts, now they are only allowed passive roles in conflicts with external enemies. In none of the American blockbusters that have had the ‘war on terror’ as a theme women are depicted as active soldiers (not even in Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar winner The Hurt Locker, 2008). The same is to be said about Israeli films using the theme of the Lebanese war, or in the Palestinian films depicting their conflict with Israel.

Other ways to look upon the world

In Sweden as in the rest of Europe, Hollywood has since long set the norm. The selection of films we showed during the spring of 2011was therefore picked from other traditions, or other ideologies (in the Slovenian philosopher and film critic Slavoj Žižeks understanding of the term). It is certainly true that Hollywood influenced drama in Asia too, but the ideological difference goes deeper.

What ideology is can be demonstrated by a story told by the world-famous British foreign correspondent Robert Fisk during a visit here in Malmö. When he first arrived to his new home in Beirut after the first Lebanese war in 1982, the Lebanese taxi driver asked him: Are you a Christian or a Moslem? The scarred leftist journalist replied: none, I am an atheist, whereupon the driver asked: But are you a Christian or a Muslim atheist? Ideology, in other words, goes deeper than outer shape, and it is ideology, not surface, that interest us here.

To watch film from other traditions or ideologies can be part of a hermeneutic approach, because it means that we borrow someone else’s glasses, we see the world through another’s eyes, within another discourse. So even if all films involve a moment of transcendence, the film’s ideological difference is particularly instructive to study for those interested in politics.

So in order to study film as politics heterogeneousity was important.

My Name is Khan (2010)

Bollywood is one of the world’s greatest film industries, with more than 900 titles a year. Almost all films that are produced there are made for the Asian and North African market, mostly in Hindi, Tamil and other Indian languages. Very few films find their way to the mainstream cinemas of Europe, although this is now starting to change, following Danny Boyle’s British ‘Bollywood film’ Slumdog Millionaire (2008), and Karan Johar’s My Name is Khan (2010), a Bollywood film mainly shot in Hollywood/California.

Bollywood film in general has been perceived as subversive in many places of the world. The Indian Film industry has long been close to the Socialist Party. But it has been disruptive in other ways too. In the West, it has been perceived as demure. But elsewhere, in the Middle East and North Africa, it has been seen as frivolous. In some places, women organized themselves in ‘Women only film Clubs’ for members, where they can watch films that are considered harmful by their national patriarchal structures.

That a Bollywood film could cause a great uproar even in the United States was something that was hardly expected. My Name is Khan ran into trouble even before the first day of shooting, at the airport in Los Angeles, where the film’s star Shah Rukh Khan was refused entry into the United States. Shah Rukh Khan is a superstar in Bollywood, and thus one of the world’s most well-known actors on screen. But at the airport, no one knew who he was; the American customs staff refused to admit him since they suspected he was a terrorist.

He urged them to call the Embassy and the Government. All confirmed that he was ‘the world’s greatest film actor’. At last he was granted admittance, but no one gave him an apology, even though he explicitly asked for one.

This unfortunate incident was re-staged at the Washington airport in one of the film’s key scenes, in which the Indian Moslem Rizwan Khan, who suffers from Asperger syndrome, will fly to Washington to tell the American people and president that his name is Khan and that he is not a terrorist. The stupid American customs officer then asks Khan to ‘say howdy’ to the US president.

My Name is Khan stages India’s views on the US ‘war on terror’. But as in many Indian movies, it also squeezes in various conflicts and sub themes. It is jammed with action, melodrama, a love story, song, dance, thriller elements and politics. It is over three hours long and very entertaining. It should be remembered that an Indian audience’s use of the film is very different from that of the Swedish audience.

In India, the whole family goes to the cinema together. Bollywood film is primarily a Sunday entertainment. Consequently, a broader audience group’s expectations must be met at the same time. A movie should have something for everyone. My Name is Khan was a success in India, and it opened last year’s film festival in Berlin. It has been shown on numerous occasions in small Swedish cinemas, like BioCentrum, a cinema located in a middle class suburb outside Malmö that specializes in Bollywood films, where we screened it as the first film of our film seminar series.

City of Life and Death (Nanjing! Nanjing! 2009)

The Chinese film market is assumed to be the fastest growing market in the world. Chinese film audiences prefer to watch historical dramas. According to the site What’s On Xiamen, the most popular Chinese film in 2010 was Wen Jiang’s gangster drama Let the Bullets Fly and Doze Nius’ Monga, another gangster film. Both were located in the past.

Lu Chuan’s City of Life and Death is also set in a historic environment, but that is where the similarity with the other films ends. It is not produced primarily for the Chinese market. Its subject matter is the metrocide (a term denoting the murder of an entire city) of Nanjing, site of the Chinese National Government, which started on December 13, 1937, the first year of the Second Sino-Japanese war. The medieval city wall and other culturally significant buildings were destroyed and the Japanese army killed some 300,000 people and raped 80,000 women during the savage massacre.

Lu Chuan filmed it in black and white, working with some of the finest photographers in China led by cinematographer Cao Yu. They deliberately chose to place the camera so that we literally see the events from the victims’ perspective (something Swedish critics missed). For instance, as the city’s defenders make a last-ditch bayonet charge on the technically and numerically superior Japanese enemy the camera is placed above their shoulders. Through this choice of camera position and a very clever use of close-ups, the film gets right under the skin of the audience.

As part of the anatomy of the metrocide, the film also thematizes rape in a way that I have never seen done on film before. Lu Chuan’s realism is so palpable that the psychological structuring of a metrocide, as presented in the film, becomes credible.

In several respects, the City of Life and Death breaks the conventions of war films. It has odd heroes, such as the Nazi businessman John Rabe (played by the British actor John Paisley) who saved thousands of Chinese lives inside the city. It also contained a complex and sympathetic portrayal of a Japanese soldier, Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi), something that nearly led to the Chinese Politburo to stop the film from reaching Chinese screens. It is yet to be released in Japan.

City of Life and Death has a clear gender perspective, not only by how it thematizes rape, but also by its discussion of ‘comfort women’ (both captured Chinese women and Japanese prostitutes brought from home, serving in ‘field brothels’). This is a subject that in recent years has been taken up by a series of feminist scholars at East Asian universities. In City of Life and Death women are shown as taking part, both actively and passively, in resisting the Japanese occupiers.

Through an unconventional focus on the city’s civil defenders the film also breaks the convention that war is a strictly military issue.

City of Life and Death has been criticized because it doesn’t clearly present the historical sequence of events. The answer to this objection should be that anyone who is familiar with the Sino-Japanese is already aware of the historical context. Lu Chuan has not seen as his task to re-tell to his audience the general history. Instead, he wanted to delve into the function of the human psyche during events of extreme violence, thus making it possible to draw parallels to other metrocides: Kigali, Srebrenica, Hanoi, the fire-bombing of Hamburg/Altona, Dresden and Tokyo or the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The conflict between Japan and China is still palpable, and is exploited by media and politicians in both countries. There have been reports of jubilant Chinese after the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accidents in Japan in 2011 and Japanese historical revisionists still diminish Japanese crimes against the Chinese during the wars between the countries, in particular during the massacre in Nanking, although Japan has now formally apologized for the metrocide.

Joint Security Area, JSA (Gongdong gyeongbi guyeok JSA, 2000)

Park Chan-wooks minor classic Joint Security Area became the first South Korean film set in the area surrounding the 38th parallel north, the Demilitarized Zone, between North and South Korea. In 2000 it was a major box office hit in South Korea, more successful even than James Cameron’s Titanic. A kammerspiel, taking place at a frontier post, the film discusses the conflict between the Koreas, Korean identity and masculinity.

The background is the historical conflict, the Korean War. The war in Korea can be seen, in many ways, as the last battleground of the Second World War, the last unfinished battle. Hostilities began on June 25, 1950, and were interrupted by an armistice agreement signed on July 25, 1953. Like a Matrjosjka, a Russian doll, the war contained various conflicts. Firstly, here the United States, the Soviet Union and China met in direct confrontation inside the Cold War framework for the first and last time. Also, the Korean civil war contained several minor internecine conflicts, as so often is the case in civil wars.

The number of casualties in dead and wounded was astronomical. An estimated 4 million people were killed, of which 33,600 Americans, 16,000 UN soldiers, 415,000 South Koreans, 520,000 North Koreans and 900,000 Chinese. During the war there where numerous reports of violations of humanitarian law.

When hostilities ceased, the antagonists reached an agreement that the 38th parallel north should mark the border between the Koreas. On both sides dictators had seized power, right wing nationalist Syngman Rhee sat, with a mandate from the US, in South Korea and the China-allied Kim Il-sung ruled North Korea. Along the border runs an approximately ten miles wide No Mans Land, the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The Joint Security Area (JSA), which is the only area in the DMZ where South and North Korean forces stand face-to-face, is used by the Koreas for diplomatic engagements.

South Korea finally got a democratic constitution after widespread unrest, on account of working class opposition to the dictatorship, while North Korea has developed its own form of Confucian ‘state socialism’. The war between the Koreas is still officially ongoing. It is essentially a cold war that periodically heats up with skirmishes, where each side claims the other side shot first and they therefore had to respond.

Park Chan-wook’s film portrays such an occasion. Soldiers from the South and the North, stationed at the JSA, have started to hang out and they appreciate each other’s company. But then something happens which leads to several soldiers’ death. A neutral delegation arrives to investigate, consisting of a Swiss and a Swedish army officer, led by major Sophie E. Jean (Yeong-ae Lee) who is the investigator-in-chief and the film’s female protagonist.

Through its clear homoerotic undertones it has been suggested that the film might reflect the situation of homosexuals in Korean society as well: it is equally forbidden to have a homosexual relationship with a man, as it is for the South and North Korean soldiers to fraternize across the border. In one of the film’s key scenes, a Korean soldier starts to cry from fear, in a manner that is hardly conceivable in an Anglo-Saxon film, but that is common among men in East Asian movies. During their meetings at the checkpoint, the brilliant cast collectively acts out all possible varieties of male stereotypes. But when Sophie E. Jean appears she is always isolated in the image. She is not part of the male collective.

The Korean War acts as the ever-present background to the story, but none of the main-characters can be described as ‘the enemy’.

Valley of the Wolves: Palestine (Kurtlar Vadisi: Filistin, 2011)

The film that most clearly questions the standard American narrative is Zübeyr Şaşmazs Turkish Valley of the Wolves: Palestine.

Film and television series Valley of the Wolves has proved to be an unusually commercially viable phenomenon in Turkey. The title (in Turkish: Kurtlar Vadisi) refers to the mythical Urheimat of the Turkish people, the ‘Valley of the wolves’. This mythology has long inspired ultra-nationalist movements such as the neo-fascist terror group Grey Wolves. The Valley of Wolves franchise can be understood as illustrating the Turkish people’s political desire for Turkey to play a more assertive role in its geographical surroundings.

Valley of the Wolves: Iraq (2006), the first of three (so far) feature films in the series, can be described as a Cold War spy-thriller in reverse, where Turkey’s James Bond, Polat Alemdar, travels to Iraq, where he sides with the Iraqi people’s resistance to the American occupation forces.

Polat Alemdar is also the main-character in the television series as well as in the second feature film Valley of the Wolves: Gladio (2009).

Valley of the Wolves: Palestine starts with the Israeli attack on the international aid convoy, Gaza Freedom Flotilla’s, flagship Mavi Marmara, in May 2010. During the attack, which took place in international waters, an Israeli naval commando killed nine unarmed Turkish activists. Most of the activists on board the ships in the convoy did not originate from countries at war with Israel. Nor did the participating ships carry flags of countries that waged war against Israel. With the support of international law and other conventions, and on the basis of the autopsy protocol and a long series of investigations, it has been suggested that the Turkish activists were murdered in cold blood, and that the attack was an act of piracy. Other commentators have seen the matter differently.

In the film Polat Alemdar travels to Israel to avenge the Israeli attack. As in the film with an Iraqi theme, the conflict in Palestine is presented from a popular Turkish perspective, but within a fairly conventional frame borrowed from the Hollywood drama. Although the film is ‘conventional’ in a stylistic perspective, the shift of perspective is fruitful. Interpretations of the Middle East conflict on Western screens have long been dominated by the American and Israeli ideological perspectives. In recent years, the Israeli film industry’s propaganda films have achieved significant artistic success, and several have won prestigious prizes at international festivals, for instance Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman, 2008), Beaufort (Joseph Cedar,2007) and Lebanon (Samuel Maoz, 2009). Feature films produced in these countries, or according to these ideologies, can usually be considered partisan. This also generally goes for films produced in other Western nations, like England and Denmark, which share the American and Israeli perspectives.

In this context Valley of the Wolves: Palestine can be seen as taking a pro-liberation, rather than pro-occupier, stance. The film is the most expensive production in the history of Turkish film production at an estimated cost of 20 million dollars. But given the success of the franchise so far it is likely to quickly earn back its production costs.

To study film as politics

Answers depend on how questions are framed. Not even the best film produced from inside a specific ideology can help but to echo its basic assumptions. European society is characterized by the American culture industry’s values and dreams. It is a liberal approach, one that implies a repressive tolerance that makes it possible to criticize the existing order. But only up to a certain limit. In times of crisis repression can take the upper hand over tolerance in this equation.

By studying films from other cultural spheres, produced from within different ideological perspectives and schools of political thinking, it is possible to become aware of the constructed dimension of positions we take for granted and achieve a greater understanding both of ‘the Others’ and, by seeing ourselves through their eyes, of ourselves. Such was, at least, the aim we set ourselves when we created the Critical Film Studies forum.

Joacim Blomqvist is a freelance writer and a teacher of media studies and political philosophy.


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Beavoir, Simone de, The Second Sex (1949)

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Faludi, Susan, The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 (San Fransisco 2007)

Gondwe, Sonny, Bailey, Lillian, Kanyama, Carlsson, Mariam, ‘Slavauktionen är ett symptom på rasistiska strömningar’, Lundagård, 19 April 2011

Haraldsson, Anders, ‘Polisanmälde slavauktion – nu trakasseras han’, Svenska Dagbladet, 24 April 2011

hooks, bell, The Oppositional Gaze, Black Female Spectators (Boston 1982)

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Žižek, Slavoj, The Sublime Object of Ideology (Verso 1989)

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