Dir: Jiang Wen. China. 2000. 162 mins.
Prod Co: Asian Union Film & Entertainment Ltd. Int'l Sales: Fortissimo Film Sales. Prod: Jiang Wen. Exec prods: Dong Ping, Zheng Quangang. Scr: You Fengwei, Shu Ping, Jiang Wen, Shi Jianquan, inspired by the novella Shengcun by You Fengwei. DoP: Gu Chengwei. Prod des: Tang Shiyun. Ed: Zhang Yifan, Folmer Wiesinger. Mus: Cui Jian, Li Haiying, Liu Xing. Main cast: Jiang Wen, Kagawa Teruyuki, Jiang Hongbo, Chen Qiang, Sawada Kenya.
More of an all-out assault on the senses than a mere movie, Devils On The Doorstep is an exhausting marathon on the complexities of Japanese-Chinese relations, the nature of national identity and the transforming imprint of war on the human soul. Possessed of a manic energy and wild humour reminiscent of Emir Kusturica's work, it covers the spectrum from the poetic to the shocking. Alternately enthralling, exasperating, fascinating and tiresome, it is a banquet of emotions. At close to three hours, it is also a film that requires extraordinary stamina and patience from its audience. Regardless of its artistic merits it is a marginal arthouse prospect at best.
Set in a small village in North China during the winter of 1944, the second feature from actor-director Jiang Wen is shot in lyrical black and white. Its epic story begins when Ma Dasan (Jiang) is roused from his bed in the middle of the night and left with the custody of two prisoners. He is told they will be collected in five days time on New Year's Eve. The prisoners prove to be a Japanese soldier and his Chinese translator. Bristling with a ferocious anger, the soldier is determined to provoke his own death. The translator is more circumspect and conveys the soldier's outbursts as pleas for mercy. Asked to teach the soldier insults he can hurl at his captors, he soon has him fluently wishing them a Happy New Year.
The misunderstandings between the races and innate prejudices on both sides are the subject of a knockabout humour in the film's early stages with the bemused village elders acting like refugees from a madcap Preston Sturges comedy. The plot deepens as it becomes clear that nobody will be returning for the hostages. Weeks pass and they continue to be treated with respect but eventually a consensus grows that something must be done about them. The question of their fate becomes an issue that seals the future of the village and the lives of all who reside in it.
In the humorous passages of its beginning and the savage violence of its resolution, the film explores a stereotypical view of each nation. The Japanese characters are invariably arrogant, vindictive and obsessed with strict codes of honour. The Chinese are cowering, subservient and have the unwavering passivity of the eternal victim. Yet after months in captivity, the Japanese soldier is no longer concerned with death as the only acceptable means of saving face. Similarly, after the later atrocities even Ma Dasan is pushed beyond passivity into blood-soaked vengeance. They are both as much a product of their circumstances as they are of any predetermined national characteristics.
Acknowledging the perceived differences between the races, the film makes its ultimate point by graphically depicting the similarities they share. War and the crimes of war bring an equal burden of guilt. The devils on the doorstep are not just an external threat they can just as easily be the evil within.