One of the most overlooked film in the past decade, Jiang Wen’s darkly amusing antiwar film Devils on the Doorstep premiered at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival to great acclaim, winning the Grand Jury Prize only to somehow disappear through the cracks with almost no exposure whatsoever. It’s an unlucky happenstance that befalls some cinematic gems every now and then but it’s always a great satisfaction to shed some light on such a powerful masterpiece.
The film is set in 1944 during World War II in a small village in northern China named Rack-Armor Terrace. The Japanese have occupied the area for over eight years and from all appearances, the occupation has been peaceful as shown by the small unit of Naval Reserves gayly parading their marching band around the village to the same ridiculous tune every morning (an amusing leitmotiv throughout the movie) and distributing candies to the local children.
Then one night, a threatening stranger identifying himself only as “Me” drops off a pair of Japanese prisoners in the house of peasant Ma Dasan (director Jiang Wen himself). He orders the terrified peasant to conceal the two captives and interrogate them before he returns to retrieve them on New Year’s day only a few days away. Should they escape however, the mysterious man threatens the entire village with severe reprisal.
As the weeks go by and the mysterious stranger who dropped off the POWs never shows up, the fate of the two prisoners becomes a point of heavy contention for the meek villagers. What if the Japanese realize the Chinese villagers are holding two of their own captives? As tension rises, Dasan and the other villagers are eventually forced to choose between killing the prisoners or setting them free, unleashing dark and tragic consequences on the entire village in a startling third act.
Devils on the Doorstep is a brilliant antiwar movie, exposing the folly of war and the absurd horror committed by ordinary people. It offers a rare look of Chinese life during the Japanese occupation, a perspective that is almost totally unknown to Western audiences used to war movies focusing on the European or Pacific theaters. Based on You Fengwei’s novel “Shengcun”, this black-and-white film is most surprising in how it deals with wartime horrors in a tone which is darkly farcical and at times incredibly hilarious only to unexpectedly shift in the third act into gut-wrenching and horrifying irony. It’s a fine balancing act between horror and comedy and Jiang does it masterfully.
The performances are uniformly excellent from top to bottom. Jiang is just as brilliant in front and behind the camera. Special mention must also be made of Kenya Sawada as the Japanese Captain Sakatsuka, whose macho swagger contrast his apparently good intentions, eventually leading to a horrific display of savagery at the end of the film. Some of the movie’s best and most hilarious moments happen during the interactions between Chinese villagers and Japanese captives.
The two prisoners turn out to be a fanatical Japanese soldier, Hanaya Kosaburo (Teruyuki Kagawa) and his cowardly Chinese translator Dong Hanchen (Yuan Ding). Hanaya, wanting to die at all cost rather than be held prisoner, constantly curses his captors but Dong, in an effort to save his own life, does his best to mistranslate his partner’s inflammatory provocations into friendly compliments, causing Hanaya to be thoroughly confused by his captors’ kindly response.
Running at over two hours, the film sags a bit halfway through as Ma travels to the city to hire a hitman to dispose of the two prisoners but it soon unfolds into an unforgettable third act, which ratchets up the tension into an over-the-top and thoroughly horrifying climax. The movie was controversial enough to be completely banned in China and Mr. Jiang was prevented from making movies for two years.
Also watch for an introduction by Steven Soderbergh who was left thoroughly impressed by Devils on the Doorstep but I would recommend watching it only after seeing the movie.
Notes: 139 minutes.