Chinese cinema authority, Prof. Brnice Reynaud, stated in her review: "If history is fair, Devils on the Doorstep will be counted among the classic artworks (many originating in the former Eastern bloc) denouncing, in a tragicomic way, the horrors war inflicts on ordinary people, taking its place alongside Jiri Menzels and Bohumil Hrabals Closely Watched Trains and Ismaid Kadares novellas." Thats high praise, no doubt about it, but after getting another opportunity to witness and absorb this masterwork, Im now beginning to realize how accurate she truly is. Perhaps, alongside Devils on the Doorstep (Guizi lai le), Oscar winner No Mans Land will also join a shortlist of anti-war parables, that with their tone and a non-confrontational approach, can be gratifying to watch, yet are deeply horrifying to mull over. But this film has fought a hell of a battle just to reach where it is today.
Directed by Jiang Wen, Devils was officially made under the supervision of the Chinese officials in the late 90s. Jiang decided to send the film in at Cannes 2000 where he ended up winning the Grand Jury prize. However, the Chinese authorities banned the film before it was scheduled to open there; Jiang was more or less informed not to direct a film again (which he hasnt done but he refuses to work outside China), and now, just in the last couple of years, he has shown up as an actor in films like The Missing Gun and Warriors of Heaven and Earth. He was never given an official reason for the decision except that they didnt like the overall presentation of the Chinese peasants. Its obvious that they failed to recognize Jiangs message in Devils that war has a tendency to reduce human beings to lowest common denominators, no matter who they think they are.
Adapted from a novella by Fengwei You, the film establishes its ironical tone from the opening shot. A Japanese naval band is seen marching across the desolate terrain of the northern seaside village of Rack Armour Terrace, stopping in to hand out candies to the children of the local Chinese peasants. This is done in a manner which presents them as father figures while the children's real fathers kneel to the ground. Villagers are barely able to grow enough grain for themselves and their occupiers, but try to maintain a somewhat peaceful condition, at least on the outside. The year is 1945 but no one in this remote area is aware of whats going on elsewhere. One night, one of the locals, Ma Dasan (brilliantly portrayed by Jiang himself), is interrupted during his @#%$-session with a local mistress as a mysterious stranger barges in with a gun and orders him to take care of two POWs: an angry and hateful Japanese soldier and a more tolerable Chinese translator once recruited by the Japanese.
This creates a huge dilemma for Ma Dasan and the rest of the villagers. The stranger had also informed Ma that they need to interrogate the men, and if they arent taken care of properly, he'll come back in a week and slaughter the whole village. Villagers do their part but no one shows up to collect them. Weeks turn into months and after some close encounters with the Japanese forces usually marching outside, they decide to finish them off. Ma continues to feel guilty about the situation and does his best to keep them alive against the will of others, but eventually gives in -- a surreally comic sequence follows in which a legendary executioner is borrowed from a neighboring village but things dont turn out as well as expected. Eventually, the captured Japanese soldier, who has been waiting to get killed by his "enemy," starts to see the light of their kindness, and agrees to take them to his superiors so the villagers can get some benefits for all theyve done for him. What starts out as a gesture of kindness suddenly turns into a horrific mess, and in a matter of seconds, the true nature of the warring who have nothing to lose comes to the forefront.
Its hard to imagine that an accomplished work like Devils is only the second film that Jiang has ever directed. It was shortened by about 20 minutes by the Western "authorities" (for aesthetical reasons) after a nearly 3-hour version played at Cannes, but the portrait of the "devil" he has painted hasnt lost its luster. DP Gu Changweis stark and shadowy B&W photography helps evoke the foreboding menace that Jiangs tale establishes. The film is at once a sprawling epic and an intimate character study. All this while various sequences carry a decadent yet blackly comic tone: one involves a tense stand-off which is suddenly interrupted by a Chinese donkey (or at least one owned by a peasant) as he starts humping a "Japanese" mare standing helplessly nearby; while in another, the captured Japanese soldier thinks he's hurling profanities at the villagers not knowing that his fellow has taught him to thank them, and when the villagers are surprised by his voice, the translator informs them that the "Japanese sound the same whether theyre happy or angry."
Brnice Reynaud also rightfully mentioned that its nearly impossible for a Western mind to be able to totally comprehend the scars left on the Chinese psyche by the war with Japan. And while Jiang doesnt exactly humanize the Japanese, he allows us to peek through their moral ambiguities (perhaps that was what pissed off the Chinese authorities). But at the end, as the devastating final shot switches the film to color, the absurdity of war and its aftereffects on everyone involved have never felt so vividly black and white.
*DEVILS ON THE DOORSTEP was released theatrically in the U.S. back in 2002 by Cowboy Pictures. The company didn't stay in business long enough to release it on home video. But a DVD was recently released by Home Vision. It is presented by director Steven Soderbergh, a good friend and admirer of Jiang Wen.
*The film is NOT available anywhere else with subtitles.