“Devils on the Doorstep” is a Chinese film co-written, directed, and produced by Jiang Wen. It premiered at Cannes and was awarded the Grand Prix. This was quite an accomplishment considering the Chinese Film Bureau did not want the film shown anywhere, much less Cannes. The Chinese authorities were upset with the depiction of the Chinese peasants. The movie was loosely based on the novel Survival by You Fengwei. Jiang opted to film in black and white to recall old time war movies.
The movie is set in a Chinese village during the Sino-Japanese War in 1945. The village is in Japanese occupied territory. A mysterious stranger drops off two prisoners at the home of Ma Dasan (Jiang). Ma is told to hold onto the two for a while and interrogate them. Ma goes to the village council and they argue what to do. One of the council members calls Ma a “turtle fucker”. They decide to do as the stranger demanded. They interrogate the two in a comic scene. Hanaya (Kagawa Teruyuki) is a belligerent sergeant and Dong Hanchen (Yuan Ding) is Chinese collaborator who interprets for the Japanese. During the questioning Hanaya tries to provoke the villagers into killing him, but Dong translates what he says into pleasantries. Dong tells them that “Japs sound the same whether they’re happy or angry.” The stranger does not show up and after six months the council orders Ma to kill the prisoners. He hides them instead. Eventually a hired beheader is brought in named One Stroke Liu who used to be an ace executioner. He promises that the heads will roll nine times, blink thrice, and smile. In a Keystone Cops scene, he botches the job. Ma then proposes to exchange the men for some grain. The Japanese agree to the deal and this leads to a celebration with the Japanese garrison partying with the villagers. It ends in an atrocity as the movie turns from black comedy to just black.
Jiang has made an entertaining movie. The cinematography uses a variety of shots which adds to the fun of viewing it. The acting is fine, especially Jiang. However, a lot of the acting is of the Oriental screaming style. There are some funny moments, but it does have a tendency to be on the silly side. And yet, the atrocity scene is jarring. The movie can give you whiplash.
I don’t normally side with the Chinese Film Bureau, but I think they may have been right about this film. The fact that it was made in black and white led me to believe it would be a propaganda piece. It certainly is not. It has the look of a Soviet film like “The Cranes Are Flying”, but even in the Khrushchev thaw, you did not see movies that made fun of the Soviet people during the Great Patriotic War. “Devils at the Doorstep” portrays Chinese peasants as stupid, naïve, and cowards. They befriend Hanaya and can’t bring themselves to kill him. It does not give a realistic impression of how hard the occupation must have been for Chinese villagers. Until the atrocity, the Japanese are not demonized. They give candy to the kids. They honor the deal for the prisoners.
In spite of the caveats, “Devils on the Doorstep” is a must see for foreign war movie lovers. It is certainly unique and entertaining.
GRADE = B