Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
An exceedingly good drama, Devils on the Doorstep won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes
in 2000. One can see why; I've not seen a Chinese film that looks at the Japanese occupation
of WW2 with this much compassion for both sides. The film is actually very funny, and plays
almost as a farce until the unavoidable brutalities of the final act.
In the last year of the Japanese occupation, the peasants of a small Chinese
village are upset when a mysterious Chinese partisan appears one midnight to drop off
two prisoners. He demands that they be kept for five days and interrogated, or reprisals
will follow. Ma Dasan (Wen Jiang, also the film's director) takes the threat seriously,
and he and his common-law wife Yu'er (Hongbo Jiang) feed the prisoners and keep them warm.
One captive is a Chinese interpreter, who artfully alters everything that his angry Japanese
companion says so they won't get their throats cut; the interpreter explains every
incomprehensible reaction as the inexplicable behavior of a 'foreign devil.' Ma Dasan
refuses to execute the prisoners and instead hides them in the foundation of a building
used by the Japanese Navy as a fort. When the subterfuge is found out, he travels to the
city to find an assassin to kill the prisoner for him. Finally, the entire village decides
to trade the prisoners to the local Japanese army station, expecting gratitude and fair play.
Ma Dasan lives in a seaside hamlet near an ancient wall fortification; a Japanese naval
band marches through daily to gives the children candy while their fathers kowtow and
grovel. There's nothing but distrust and hatred between the Chinese and the foreign devils,
But the situation almost becomes a low comedy when Ma Dasan takes reluctant charge of the
two prisoners. The Chinese interpreter desperately wants to stay alive, while the confused
sergeant tries to kill himself by slamming his head against a wooden post. He asks the
interpreter to teach him how to swear at the Chinese and insult their ancestors so
they'll kill him; the interpreter instead teaches him to say polite things like 'Happy New
Year.' Ma Dasan can't understand why the Japanese soldier seems so angry when saying such
nice words; the interpreter tells him that's how all foreign devils behave.
But the unknown resistance leader threatened to kill everyone in town, and the neighbors stop bickering and cooperate
fully with Ma Dasan, even offering precious food to feed the prisoners. The peasants eventually decide that the risk is too great and the prisoners must die, but Ma Dasan can't make himself do it and secretly imprisons them elsewhere. In one amusing scene, two hungry Japanese soldiers enter the town, demand Chinese-cooked chicken and almost discover their comrades.
Director Wen Jang has a wonderful knack with the story's tone and the comedic timing of the dialogue. The characters are continually being put in amusingly absurd positions. They may be peasants, but they're as smart as foxes when it comes to protecting themselves. After eight years of occupation, many think that life will be like this forever.
Helping the film into its final stretch is a hilarious sequence where Ma Dasan enlists the help of a master killer called
"One Stroke" Liu (Qiang Chen), an ancient sword master who leaps like a dervish and promises to lop off the prisoners'
heads without pay. He's yet another attempt by Ma Dasan and his neighbors to put the responsibility for the hostages on somebody else. Of course, it doesn't work out well.
We know something's up when the peasants finally decide that the best thing to do is turn the prisoners in
to the Japanese army. A little group-think wipes out all doubts, and nobody worries about the occupying army's
known capacity for violence. The peasants imagine that the commanding officer is going to distinguish between
the guerrillas that captured the prisoners, and the civilians that have merely kept them locked up ... for six months ...
Devils on the Doorstep goes beyond this last confrontation to show what happens later, after the war is ended. It's here that the tale becomes especially bleak, as the new Nationalist Chinese commander is every bit as unforgiving and bloodthirsty as was his Japanese counterpart. In a telling detail, two gum-chewing American G.I.'s always flank the Nationalist commander, in gangster fashion. War is terrible and oppression is the same no matter what direction it comes from, and Devils on the Doorstep doesn't distinguish between nationalities. Although the movie has won international renown, it did not find favor with Chinese authorities. Wen Jiang has continued as an actor but has been prevented from directing another film.
Besides Wen Jiang, top honors should go to Ding Yuan as the interpreter and Teruyuki Kagawa as the Japanese army prisoner. Wen Jiang used Japanese actors to play the brutal occupiers. This is an open and honest look at what war really is - civilian populations caught between murderous enemy soldiers and their own equally harsh partisans. The film balances clownish humor against terrible atrocities and makes both extremes completely convincing.
Home Vision Entertainment has scored a hot title in Devils on the Doorstep, which is presented in a perfect enhanced B&W transfer that changes to color only for the last couple of shots. The insert flyer includes a disclaimer to the effect that this 139-minute cut is the director's finished and approved version of the film. A rough cut of 162 minutes (listed in the IMDB) was shown at film festivals before the Wen Jiang could finalize his desired version.
Director Steven Soderbergh provides a non-spoiler video introduction, mainly to express his admiration for the film and its director. In a brief text interview, Wen Jiang expresses no animosity for being sidelined by Peiping, saying he's a Chinese filmmaker and doesn't want to work elsewhere.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Devils on the Doorstep rates:
Supplements: Introduction by Steven Soderbergh, text interview with director, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 4, 2005
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson