Devils on the Doorstep
M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   D A V I D   N G

Distilling war to a no-exit stalemate between entrenched pawns can raise a host of dilemmas for a filmmaker. From the trivialization that comes with comic reductionism, to the awkward reconciliation of the absurd with the ultraviolent, to the casting of the nominal victor as a Darwinian mongrel cum existential warrior, the sub-genre is fraught with quagmires, both ethical and stylistic. Devils on the Doorstep, a World War II tragicomedy set in Japanese-occupied Northern China, manages to navigate this treacherous minefield with athletic agility and slapstick energy, intertwining wicked fun with a sense of imminent peril. The clever set-up -- a Chinese peasant finds himself the unwitting keeper of a Japanese POW and his translator -- is rife with philosophical possibility. How does war invert power structures? Does war bring out the best or worst in us? Are there such things as good and bad guys in war? The movie's irreverence hones these serious questions into sharp, farcical jabs that seldom miss their targets. Deliriously intelligent and jokingly graphic, Devils on the Doorstep transforms war into a circus of horrors to be performed over and over again.

The movie's director, co-writer, and star, Jiang Wen, is relatively unknown in the United States, but in his native China, he is an actor par excellence (Red Sorghum), a sometime director (In the Heat of the Sun), and an object of controversy, too. When Devils premiered at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival, Chinese censors attempted to block the screening, citing Jiang's noncompliance with Beijing Film Bureau policy (he'd allegedly failed to submit the script for official vetting). Devils went on to win the festival's Grand Prix and is now having its American theatrical debut (a two-week run at New York's Film Forum followed by limited engagements in other major cities). Cut by 20 minutes from its original 160 minute running time, the movie lurches and sputters in some places. But overall, Jiang's sense of chaotic timing not only remains intact but is strangely heightened as his comic scenarios rear-end each other with the mounting intensity of a bumper car pile-up.

Set in a mountainous village that could be the last outpost in the world, Devils generates much of its comedy from the clash of hillbilly culture with the global war machine. On a wintry night, a good-natured but hapless peasant named Ma Dasan (Jiang) is forced at gunpoint to hold captive a kidnapped Japanese soldier and his Chinese interpreter. Bumbling and dim-witted, Dasan is paralyzed by indecision. He is fearful of letting his charges die (in which case he will be punished) and is too poor to sustain them for long. The Japanese soldier (Kagawa Teruyuki) is a rabid, spittle-flecked nationalist who marshals all sorts of ethnic slander to his aid, and even attempts to kill himself in order to frame his putative jailers. But he soon finds his intentions thwarted by his self-preserving interpreter, who, he discovers, has filtered and softened his every verbal provocation.

As a study in miscommunication, Devils suggests a world ruled by willful deception. Words are altered, rearranged, and reattributed in the name of survival; villagers are pitted against each other under the threat of being labeled collaborators; and the usually clueless Dasan finds himself weighing human life against precious sacks of grain. The intriguing interplay between captive, interpreter, and captor keeps the locus of power up in the air. Authority is in perpetual flux. Eventually, Dasan submits his prisoners to a council of village elders who first agree to bury them alive, and when that fails, to hire an assassin to secretly behead them, which also fails. Winter turns into spring and then summer. Who are the real prisoners here?

Shot by cinematographer Gu Changwei on what looks like old b/w newsreel stock, Devils confers a frenetic immediacy to its historical fiction. The jittery camera throws the viewer into the thick of the action, inducing a visual whiplash that is likely to be felt for days after. As an anti-epic, the movie uglifies its mountain settings while deflating any hint of loftiness or heroism. A recurring Japanese marching ditty, heard every morning and evening, is just one of Dasan's many reminders that he isn't dead yet. If war brings out the worst in us, it is a collective debasement. The virtuous and the self-serving both end up fighting on the floor. Indeed, the screenplay (by You Fengwei, Shi Jianquan, Shu Ping, and Jiang) refuses to point fingers and simply damns the whole lot of them. When Dasan concocts a plan to turn in his captives to a local Japanese regiment in exchange for food, he is literally making a deal with the devil (the pejorative Chinese term for any foreigner). The resulting existential nightmare, filmed as a hellish bonfire, only confirms the abdication of a moral good.

Jiang has already been compared by the western press to such literary luminaries as absurdist playwright Samuel Beckett and novelist Ismael Kedare. In terms of cinematic analogues, he is most akin to Balkan director Emir Kusturica, whose Underground portrays the war in Yugoslavia as a carnivalesque fright-show, as well as Danis Tanovic, whose more recent No Man's Land frames the same war as a sullen waiting game. A comic dialectician at heart, Jiang embraces both views of suffering. On the one hand, his ensemble of peasant caricatures comes straight out of vaudeville. Proudly materialistic and unrefined, they spout comic profanities ("turtle-fucker") and mug vigorously like silent comedians. On the other, shy Dasan is a model of terminal confusion. For him, the war is a game to which he is not suited; like Tanovic's perplexed soldiers, he can only shrug his shoulders and hope to wait it out.

Shifting moods with maniacal frequency, Devils on the Doorstep ends on a characteristically ambiguous note -- a quasi-spiritual beheading. For Jiang, death is not so much an end but a release. Filmed from the point-of-view of the rolling head, the scene is a gruesome uncorking of the movie's bottled-up insanity and is ironically the only color shot in the movie. Optimistic in its own peculiar way, the conclusion provides the long-awaited exit to Dasan's existential conundrum. The look of relief on his face suggests that, for this long-suffering soul, the war -- internal and external -- is finally over.

[rating: 4 of 4 stars]

Distributor Web site: Cowboy Pictures
Movie Web site: Devils on the Doorstep



Photo credits: © 2002 Cowboy Pictures, Inc. All rights reserved.