September 10, 2020
Devils on the Doorstep – China, 2000
Sometimes the best measure of a film’s quality is how you feel about it upon reflection. Does your mind focus on the film’s deficiencies or its strengths? Does the story become clearer or increasingly confusing? Do you find you still have unanswered questions, and if so, does the notion of watching the film a second time fill you with excitement or terror? I am sure we can all think of films that we have had less esteem for the more we pondered them. A few of examples from my own experiences are Inland Empire, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Elephant Man, and The Dark Knight Rises. It is rarer for reflection to enhance your esteem for a film unless that reflection is the result of dramatic events that cause it to be given a meaning or relevance that it likely was not intended to have. An example of this is the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup. According to Groucho Marx, no thought was given to making a film that commented on the Great Depression or the rise of totalitarianism: Groucho had simply never played a president before.
I reflected a great deal after seeing Jiang Wen’s 2000 film, Devils on the Doorstep. It is a film that demands that viewers meditate on it, if for no other purpose than to ask yourself, What did I just see? Having seen the movie, I can understand this sentiment – I experienced it many times as the film progressed. To some, this can be frustrating, but I found my quest for clarity came from an interest in what was transpiring, not from an uncomfortable level of confusion. I have always questioned whether a movie should need to be seen a second time to be fully understood, yet with Devils on the Doorstep, I can see that a second viewing would indeed enhance my appreciation of the film’s complexities and enable me to see warning signs much earlier.
Devils on the Doorstep takes place in 1945 in a part of Northern China under Japanese occupation, and it begins with a Japanese general and his marching band, or more accurately a military unit that has morphed into a marching band. The general is on horseback, and in a style that is more common in holiday parades, he leads his men down from their base at the top of a hill through the main road of a small village that borders the sea. Their presence is greeted by a few of the village’s children, as well as an overly eager man named Er Bozi. The general hands out candy to the children, his face gleaming, his arms waving his swagger stick as if it were a baton. Exactly where they’re going is unclear, but later they return in the same fashion playing the same music, waving at the same children. Every day.
The procession seems surreal at first, yet upon reflection it makes complete sense. We later learn that the Japanese government has been in this area for eight years, and it is soon clear that whatever fear existed when they first arrived has somewhat abated. None of the villagers are soldiers, and there’s no evidence that the Chinese army is lurking nearby, so just what are they to do other than settle into a comfortable groove and wait for the war to end? In a later scene, the general decides to flex his authority with a villager who apparently went outside the village without permission. To deter him from making the same mistake again, the general carves a circle around him and orders him to remain there. The man simple runs away when the general turns his back.
The film’s central character is Dasan Ma, played masterfully by the director himself. When we first see him, he is locked in a passionate embrace with a woman named Yu’er (movingly played by Jiang Hongbo), whom we later learn is a widow and has been criticized for her relationship with San. Their late-night rendezvous is interrupted by a knock on the door, and when San asks for the knocker’s identity, an unseen voice simple says, “It’s me” Soon there’s a sword at San’s throat and me is leaving two rather big bags with him. Me says he’ll return in five days to collect them and threatens San with death if they are not cared for properly. If that weren’t enough, he adds a puzzling request, that San interrogate them. And with that, me is gone, his identity never disclosed, his face never seen. He doesn’t return. (The word “me” becomes a running joke afterwards.)
The bags turn out to contain a Japanese soldier and a Chinese translator, and the question becomes What do we do with them? There’s a rather humorous interrogation, an interesting conversation about the definition of a collaborator, a scene in which the solider is taught what he thinks are words that will enrage the villagers to such an extent that they’ll be sure to kill him, and a few sweet exchanges between San and Yu’er. There’s also a scene involving an assassin who calls himself “One-Chop” Liu that would make Quentin Tarentino blush with creative envy.
So, the film is a comedy – at least, until it isn’t. Remember these soldiers have been there for eight years, enough time for some of them to have become acclimated to the area and the people. But not all of them. See, Devils on the Doorstep is not Wen’s version of Mediterraneo, Gabriele Salvatores’s 1991 film about a group of Italian soldiers who become so enamored with the Greek island that they wash up on that they forget all about the war. No, some things are not so easily disregarded, particularly attitudes shaped by a lifetime of cultural indoctrination or beliefs that societies were vertically structured, and whenever people are not seen as equal, truly awful things can happen. This is reflected in the last hour of the film, and it is tough to watch. That said, it is also one of the most powerful, jaw-dropping conclusions I’ve ever seen.
Upon completing Devils on the Doorstep, Jiang Wen did not direct a movie for seven years. It seems that Devils had upset the wrong people. It isn’t hard to see why. Since then, his films have been a bit easier to digest. There was 2007’s The Sun Also Rises, an average film that tells three interconnected stories involving people whose actions put them at risk. He had a big hit with his 2010 film, Let the Bullets Fly, about a bandit squaring off against a ruthless local official. It was so successful that it spawned a sequel in 2014 called Gone with the Bullets and Hidden Man, which is said to be the final film in his gangster trilogy. In other words, since Devils in the Dust, he has gone in a different – some might say safer – direction creatively. I get it. It’s a real loss, though. (on DVD from the good people at Home Vision Entertainment)
3 and a half stars
*Devils on the Doorstep is in Mandarin and Japanese with English subtitles.