(director/writer: Jiang Wen; screenwriter: Haiying Li; cinematographer: Changwei Gu; editors: Folmer Wiesinger/Yifan Zhang; music: Jian Cui/Haiying Li/Xing Liu; cast: Jiang Wen (Ma Dasan), Hongbo Jiang (Yu’er), Yuan Ding (Dong Hanchen), Teruyuki Kagawa (Kosaburo Hanaya), Xi Zi (Liu Wang), Cong Zhijun (Grandfather), Kenya Sawada (Capt. Inokichi Sakatsuka), Haibin Li (Me), Yoshimoto Miyaji (Lt. Nonomura), Qiang Chen (‘One-Stroke’ Liu), David Wu (Major Gao); Runtime: 140; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Wen Jiang; Cowboy Pictures; 2000-China)

“The farcical elements seemed too pat.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

After being stopped by the Chinese Film Bureau from being released for over two years, despite winning Grand Prix (second prize in Cannes), because it was considered vulgar (one nude scene, use of the term turtlefucker throughout, and it wasn’t anti-Japanese enough), actor-turned director Jiang Wen’s “Devils on the Doorstep” has finally got into my hands via videotape after a limited theater showing in a few select big American cities.

“Devils” is an antiwar farce imitative of films such as Danis Tanovic’s “No Man’s Land.” It’s a fictional story telling of the abuse of military power, the dangers of xenophobia, and of war’s inhumanity in its aim to show what is only too obvious — how war is fueled by ethnic hatred and by blind obedience to nationalism.

There’s a brass Navy band loftily marching over mountainous terrain and playing everyday the only tune it knows while dispensing candy to the children who look on with laughter, and this comical moment of slapstick relief becomes the film’s leitmotiv which reminded me of how the band in Emir Kusturica’s “Underground” was similarly used.

Wen’s richly photographed black-and-white film opens during the Christmas season of 1944 and ends in the summer of 1945 when WW11 ended. It’s set in a poor north China peasant farming village, near the Great Wall called Rack-Armour Terrace, who have been under Japanese occupation for the last eight years and have uneasily grown accustomed to the Japanese exploiting them for grain and treating them disrespectfully. The villagers consider the Japanese to be devils because they make the same sounds whether they are happy or angry.

One night Ma Dasan (played by the director–he played Gong Li’s lover in Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum and directed In the Heat of the Sun) is interrupted in the middle of lovemaking with his girlfriend, a young widow, Yu’er (Hongbo Jiang), by a loud rap on the door. An unseen man who identifies himself in a gruff voice only as “Me” thrusts onto Dasan two gunnysacks containing a gung-ho militaristic Japanese soldier with the rank of sergeant, Kosaburo Hanaya (Teruyuki Kagawa), and his nervous Chinese interpreter-collaborator Dong Hanchen (Yuan Ding). The stranger in a menacing tone tells the bumbling Dasan that he should keep them alive and question them and not let them escape until he returns for them on the New Year, which is in a few days. He warns him to do as he says or else he will take his anger out on the entire village.

“Devils” works best as it details with a bemused sense of irony the relationship between the reluctant captors and the confused captives, who are kept bound in the cellar of Dasan’s house–not too far from where the garrison is stationed. The humiliated Japanese prisoner curses at his jailers with the most vile Chinese slurs in the hope that they will kill him and he can have an honorable death, but the concilatory aide purposely mistranslates the slurs into happy sayings hoping to stay alive at any cost. But things get antsy around the village when the stranger doesn’t return and after a few weeks the naive villagers hold a meeting with their elders in charge because they feel they must either let their hostages go or execute them rather than continuing to feed them. Nothing these clownish villagers do works and six months pass before they decide to send their captives back to the Japanese garrison in exchange for grain.

The exchange with the rigid garrison captain results in them surprisingly getting enough grain to feed the village for a year and the army insisting on holding a feast in the village. But the festivities and song and wine gives way to a massacre of the villagers, which comes just as the end of WW11 is announced due to the atomic bomb. The film ends with further ethnic recriminations being played out, as a decapitated head during a military execution is left sticking out of the ground and becomes the film’s last shot and its last gory message.

The film was not an easy watch as many of its scenes were jarring and disjointed. Its right-on theme is easier to take than the awkward execution of the film. The filming techniques seemed dated and much like an American B-film from the 1930s, where the baddies were adorned with terrible villainous mustaches and the small town locals were merely simple people who meant well even if they weren’t all that bright. The farcical elements seemed too pat and familiar to hold my interest, yet its diverting grim message is a good one. It is hard to believe what the Chinese Film Bureau complained about as being true, as the Japanese in “Devils” are pictured as brutes who violated the Chinese people unmercifully during their occupation. In fact, the film is so cynical about mankind learning any lesson from the past, that it ends on a pessimistic note as it implies that the only thing mankind has learned is to build better bombs.