Devils On The Doorstep

2000, Movie, NR, 139 mins


Like so many of the great black comedies set against the grim backdrop of war — Billy Wilder's STALAG 17, Robert Altman's M*A*S*H, Emir Kusturica's UNDERGROUND — Jiang Wen's scathing satire is rooted in an inhuman scenario: Japan's brutal occupation of China during the 1930s and '40s. The year is 1945, and for the past eight years, Japanese troops have been marching up and down the dusty switchbacks of the tiny northern Chinese village of Rack-Armour Terrace, routinely humiliating villagers like Ma Dasan (Jiang) and forcing them to subsist on near-starvation rations. Late one cold winter night, Dasan is summoned to his door by a loud knock. An unseen figure claiming to be an anti-Japanese fighter dumps two sacks on his doorstep and, waving a gun under Dasan's nose, orders him to interrogate the Japanese prisoners tied up inside. The voice with the gun tells him he'll be back on New Year's Eve, five days hence, then disappears into the night. The directive puts Dasan, his mistress, Yu'er (Jiang Hongbo), and their neighbors in a terrible predicament. Dasan knows that keeping the prisoners alive is in itself an act of collaboration, but if they return the prisoners to the Imperial Army, they'll be branded traitors and risk reprisal by the resistance movement. If they don't turn them in and are later caught, they'll surely be executed. After much bickering, Dasan agrees to sit tight for the next five days and interrogate the two prisoners — Chinese-born collaborator Dong Hanchen (Yuan Ding), who begs for mercy, and Japanese soldier Hanaya Kosaburo (Teruyuki), who begs for death — but New Year's Eve comes and goes with no sign of Dasan's mysterious visitor. Six months later, the prisoners are still with them — now hidden in a section of the Great Wall — and Ma Dasan is deeply mired in an untenable situation exacerbated by miscommunications and cultural dissonance from which there can be no peaceful escape. The extreme violence and deprivation suffered by the Chinese during the occupation is hardly the stuff of fast-paced, rollicking farce, but Jiang manages to tap directly into the fundamental absurdity of ordinary people attempting to do the right thing in a world without morality, where basic survival is no longer a given. Jiang draws a great deal of humor from the situation, but the film inevitably explodes in terrible violence. This boisterous comedy serves up a cruel reminder of the fate of hundreds of thousands of Chinese, one which can only qualify as a terrible tragedy. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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Devils On The Doorstep
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