Devils on the Doorstep (2000)

Review #1,547

Director:  Jiang Wen
Cast:  Jiang Wen, Kenya Sawada, Jiang Hongbo, Yuan Ding, Cong Zhijun
Plot:  During the Japanese occupation of China, two prisoners are dumped in a peasant's home in a small town. 

Genre:  Comedy / Drama / War
Awards:  Won Grand Jury Prize (Cannes)
Runtime:  162 min (director's cut)
Rating:  NC16 (passed clean) for sexual scenes and coarse language
International Sales:  Fortissimo Films

The main flaw of this film, as you may have guessed, is its lengthy duration of nearly three hours.  It strives to be an epic but doesn’t warrant that moniker.  It is easily a two-hour black comedy that would have said what it wanted to say or shown what it wanted to show.  Therefore, I’m suitably befuddled by Jiang Wen’s decision to make a film that overstays its welcome, because it is a terrific movie that deserves much better.  The rarer version of 162 minutes is the one that cinephiles would want to see, but one wonders how the 139-minute version, presumably re-cut for commercial reasons, would have fared comparatively.  

Only Jiang’s second feature at that time, Devils on the Doorstep came six years after his acclaimed directorial debut, In the Heat of the Sun (1994)—a winner of Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival, and six Golden Horses including Best Picture and Director.  Centering on an ordinary Chinese man named Ma Dasan, who is forced at gunpoint in the middle of the night to hide and interrogate two prisoners (a Japanese soldier and a Chinese translator), Devils brings us to the period of WWII from the onset.  

We learn about the village and its inhabitants, as they muse about Ma’s fate.  Jiang builds enough context to produce palpable suspense—everyone could die if the Japanese finds out about the existence of these two prisoners.  But it is the film’s sharp, acerbic dialogue that acts as a counterpoint to the film’s dark wartime mood, to the point that one might even regard Devils as a caustic comedy of errors.  The ensemble acting is intentionally overdramatic, with Jiang giving a physical and verbal tour de force performance.  

Shot in black-and-white, Jiang’s film is easy to get into because it is a social farce.  It is certainly controversial, with themes of Chinese and Japanese nationalism that are mutually insulted and derided, if also praised and celebrated.  One could see Devils as a slight revisionist take on history, and a satirical portrayal of Chinese dumbness—possibly reasons that made China ban the film and the filmmaker.  The Chinese authorities even suggested that the film’s Cannes Grand Jury Prize win was a political decision when they demanded that the film not be screened.

Alas, Devils could have been a sure-fire winner on its own terms if it was shorter and more succinct.  It has all the ingredients to be a masterwork of Chinese cinema but falls agonisingly short.  It is absorbing up to a point, then it gets tiresome.  By then, it is hard to care how good this film actually is.

Verdict:  This is a terrific if farcical film about Chinese and Japanese nationalism during WWII that could have been a sure-fire winner if it was shorter and more succinct.  



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