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      Devils on the Doorstep
    Theater of war

    Horrifying and yet full of life and often disturbingly funny, "Devils on the Doorstep" is a different drama of World War II — as seen from occupied China.

    By TOM X. CHAO

    Carefully researched with meticulous re-creation of period details, "Devils on the Doorstep" well may be the "Das Boot" of the Japanese occupation of China. By turns incongruously hilarious and grotesquely shocking, it staggers the mind, a film of much complexity that will resonate with any thinking viewer. Like "Das Boot," it concerns much more than the specific time and place it encompasses, acting as a powerful indictment of the burdens of war on a civilian population.

    Original title: 鬼子來了.
    Directed by: Jiang Wen.
    Written by: You Fengwei, Shi Jianquan, Shu Ping, Jiang Wen.
    Cast: Jiang Wen, Jiang Hongbo, Kagawa Teruyuki, Yuan Ding, Cong Zhijun, Xi Zi, Li Haibin, Sawada Kenya, Cai Weidong, Chen Shu, Chen Lianmei..
    In Chinese and Japanese with English subtitles.
    Film Forum
    209 West Houston St. (between 6th and 7th Ave.)
    (212) 727-8100

    It also marks an impressive achievement by director and producer Jiang Wen, well known to Chinese audiences as the star of "Red Sorghum" and the television series "A Beijinger in New York," who turns in an excellent performance as the main character here. This marks his second directorial effort following 1994's "In The Heat of The Sun."

    In 1944, the Japanese have occupied the tiny northern Chinese village of Rack-Armour Terrace for eight years. Each day the occupying forces, a small troop of Naval Reserves, parade their marching band tootling their navy song, and distribute candy to the local children. But shortly the seeming placidness of the wartime occupation is shattered when an unseen stranger — identified only as "Me" — dumps a pair of POWs in the house of the peasant Ma Dasan (Jiang Wen). Ordered to care for them, with death for the entire village as the alternative, Ma Dasan is faced with an escalating set of difficulties in dealing with them.

      Devils on the Doorstep
    The two prisoners form a classically mismatched duo, the fanatical Japanese soldier, Hanaya Kosaburo (Teruyuki Kagawa), paired with his cowering translator, Dong Hanchen (Yuan Ding), who, in an effort to avoid execution, desperately mistranslates his partner's curses as banal pleasantries.

    The two are supposed to be retrieved by the mysterious stranger, but when the appointed date of New Year's Day comes, nothing happens. The villagers are left holding the bag — literally, as the prisoners arrive tied up in gunnysacks. Ma Dasan and the villagers have to contend with the fractiousness of the bickering duo while simultaneously concealing them from the Japanese troops stationed nearby. Meanwhile the prisoners, secreted in a section of the Great Wall, concoct peculiar escape attempts that fail. Winter turns to summer with no sign of the mysterious "Me."

    Despite a 140-minute length (this release version has been cut down from 162 minutes), the story moves well, based on the novel "Shengcun" by You Fengwei, adapted by the author, Shi Jianquan, Shu Ping, and Jiang Wen. Apparently, most of the original novel's plot was abandoned, leaving only the initial delivery of the prisoners intact.

    The movie's narrative only slightly goes astray during the middle section in which Ma Dasan, unable to dispose of the prisoners himself, tries to hire two assassins to kill them. The first, a supposed sharpshooter, seems strangely anachronistic with a kind of contemporary hipster appearance, and the second, "One-Strike" Liu, a swordsman, feels like he has been imported from another movie entirely, adding a dollop of slapstick comedy with his capering before attempting to behead the prisoners.

    In the final section, after months of captivity, Hanaya and the villagers hatch a scheme to return the prisoners to the Japanese in return for grain. Although almost thwarted by an indiscretion involving Ma Dasan's donkey and a Japanese horse, the Japanese regional garrison commander, Captain Sakatsuka sagrees to the bargain, even offering more grain than the villagers request. He goes so far as to host a feast for the local villagers. But, as obvious creeping suspicion grows in the viewer, the nervous truce engendered by this deal soon goes awry, owing to a simple misunderstanding, and ends in an explosion of atrocities and devastation of shocking severity, or at least that hopefully will shock even desensitized viewers. Ironically, at this point the war ends by fiat of Japanese Emperor Hirohito, following the use of atomic weapons on Japanese cities. Yet still a final, ultimate irony awaits, one that will go unrevealed here.

    The film crackles with life, energized by superb performances by the entire cast, a tremendous ensemble. From the oldest villager to the youngest child (some played by non-actors), each performance rings true.  

    Winner of the 2000 Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, the film bore its share of controversy as the official Chinese Film Bureau objected to Jiang's entry of the film into Cannes without state approval and without requested edits. However, it appears that Jiang's career has not been derailed by his defiance of the authorities as he continues to act in films.

    The film crackles with life, energized by superb performances by the entire cast, a tremendous ensemble. From the oldest villager to the youngest child (some played by non-actors), each performance rings true. The various intertwining relationships between the villagers and their relatives enlivens the film greatly. Among the other cast members, particularly effective is Kenya Sawada as the Japanese Captain Sakatsuka, whose sinister swagger and hyper-masculine posturing slowly build to a climactic display of brutality. To their credit, the filmmakers have avoided the impulse to make the Japanese characters one-dimensional monsters and have imbued them with humanizing features.

    Photographed by Gu Changwei in black and white, the film takes on an almost documentary feel, carefully emulating the look of the historical documentation consulted by the filmmakers, or at least the films of that period (e.g. those of Kurosawa). However, in a few places, particularly early on, Jiang seems to rely too heavily on unsteady handheld camera work to artificially generate excitement.

    One might also point out that the villagers don't seem particularly deprived, but appear well-fed and sufficiently content. Had their situation seemed more dire, the stakes of their dealing for grain would have been raised considerably. Despite these quibbles, "Devils on the Doorstep" offers a rare picture of life during wartime rarely encountered by American or Western audiences, for whom World War II movies usually concentrate on the European theater of operations and the war in the Pacific.

    DECEMBER 18, 2002

    Reader comments on Devils on the Doorstep:

  • good story   from maimunahamzah, Apr 9, 2003
  • Wow   from Chen Chun, Oct 23, 2003
  • [no subject]   from Honhootz, Aug 11, 2004
  • [no subject]   from James, Mar 16, 2006
  • devils on the doorstep   from Ned Marcus, May 9, 2006
  • Re: devils on the doorstep   from cfh, Sep 16, 2007

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