May 14, 2012

Readers' Choice Marathon: Devils on the Doorstep (2000)


One of the more addictive websites is iCheckMovies, which allows you to track progress in film viewing against a variety of lists. These include award winners, IMDB genre rankings, and books like the 1,001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. Going through these lists reminds me about the small amount of foreign films that I've actually seen. For example, I've only caught eight selections in the Best 100 Chinese Motion Pictures from the Hong Kong Film Awards. This is no good. Thankfully, Castor from Anomalous Material recommended Devils on the Doorstep for this Readers' Choice marathon. This surprising 2000 film was completely off my radar, so it was the perfect suggestion. Castor is a mysterious online figure who doesn't appear on podcasts or reveal his true identity. His site is a great collection of news, reviews, and lists that consistently puts out excellent work. Let's check out the questions and see if this overseas venture was the right choice for me!

What's this story about?
Ma Dasan (Wen Jiang) lives in a small town in China during the Second Sino-Japanese War during World War II, and his life isn't so bad. He's having a love affair with Yu'er (Yihong Jang) and seems pretty happy. That changes with the arrival of "me", a strange unknown figure who leaves two bags with Dasan. The packages actually hold two Japanese guys, the soldier Kosaburo Hanaya (Teruyuki Kagawa) and translator Dong Hanchen (Ding Yuan). Dasan must keep them safe until New Year's or harm will come to the entire village. When "me" fails to return at that time, it throws the town into chaos. Some people want to kill the prisoners, while others blame Dasan for their arrival. This places great stress on the guy, who just wants to do the right thing. Once they come into contact with Japanese soldiers, it's clear there's no easy outcome to this unfortunate dilemma.


What are the major themes, and how do they connect to the key issues of that time?
Devils on the Doorstep begins as a "what would you do?" comedy but morphs into something else entirely. By the time we reach the devastating finale, it's clear that Jiang is doing a lot more than telling a clever story. He's depicting the senseless nature of war and how it changes even well-meaning individuals into crazed killers. The "justice" that's delivered by the authorities is arbitrary and springs from a false sense of honor. We also see how the climate of war makes even family members suspicious of each other. Everyone is so concerned of being viewed as a "collaborator" that they grow suspicious of their own fellow citizens. The war also leads to nasty conflicts between the Japanese and Chinese based purely on their nationality. This type of struggle can only lead to pointless slaughter, and even a strange circumstance like this one will eventually devolve into violence.


Are the characters believable and fully drawn?
The running time is 139 minutes, which gives Jiang the opportunity to depict well-crafted individuals. Dasan, Hanaya, and Hanchen are all unique characters, and many of the other villagers stand out because of the extended time period. There are a few slower points in the middle, but this pace allows us to get to know the characters and understand the inner workings of the town. We also see the slow denigration of Dasan from a capable guy into a shell of his former self.  Hanaya is also intriguing because he begins as a defiant soldier who isn't willing to eat the food offered by Chinese enemies. His defenses eventually break down when he realizes they're treating him pretty well. When he's reunited with his former comrades, it's clear that Hanaya's bluster masks serious issues beneath the surface. He's an outcast in the army and isn't treated with respect by his superiors when he returns.


What are some of the most memorable scenes?
Devils on the Doorstep is filled with compelling moments, including great funny scenes that surprise because they're unexpected. The most ridiculous comedy occurs during the first meeting between the Chinese villagers and Japanese soldiers. It's a solemn affair, which is interrupted when the townspeople's donkey gets a bit too amorous. It's a silly visual that works because it comes during a very tense moment. There's also some good humor in Hanchen's purposely false translations of Hanaya's curses towards the Chinese. Hanchen is trying to keep them alive at any cost, and he also enjoys messing with his serious companion. The highlight of the movie is a lengthy sequence in town the begins as an enjoyable celebration. Both the Chinese and Japanese are having fun together, singing songs, and making jokes. The camera stays focused on the changing demeanor of Captain Inokichi Sakatsuka (Kenya Sawada), who grows angrier with each passing moment. The suspense continues to rise, and it starts becoming clear this meeting isn't going to end well. In a strange way, this mirrors the famous tavern scene in Inglorious Basterds. In that moment, the tension reaches unbearable heights and it becomes more about when the violence will start instead of if it will begin. That said, the chaos that ensues at the end of this party is horrifying and changes the entire tone of the movie. It's a brilliant move by Jiang and pulls the rug out from under us about the true nature of this story.

How’s the direction? Is there an original vision?
Wen Jiang built up a career as an actor on the TV series A Native of Beijing in New York in 1992 before making a foray into directing several years later. I wasn't familiar with his work until this film, but he definitely brings an original style. This is his second feature, and it won the Grand Prix at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival. It's definitely an original work that feels timeless because of its black-and-white cinematography and intimate perspective. Jiang brings us right into the action with lots of close-ups and speeds up the camera movement when the craziness takes over. There are few conventional shots, and that helps to keep the story interesting even when little is happening. Although the focus is World War II, it could take place during many different wars because the themes fit with so many conflicts.


Would I recommend this film to another friend?
For a good portion of Devils on the Doorstep, I enjoyed the characters and the odd situation, but I wasn't sure where it was headed. Once the final act kicked into gear, it was clear this is a masterful work that should be seen by a lot more film lovers. You rarely hear about this movie, even among cinephiles. It received only a very limited run in theaters and hasn't reached the status of other Chinese films from 2000 like In the Mood for Love and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I'm glad that Castor picked this stunning movie, which I probably never would have seen. It will definitely stick with me for a very long time.

10 comments:

  1. I have been meaning to watch this movie for some time as well. So, I am glad to hear a favorable review.

    So, Grave of the Fireflies next ?? I will love to see your reaction on that. I love that movie but I probably will never see it again.

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    1. I've heard so many similar reactions about Grave of the Fireflies, which is probably why it's taken me so long to see it. I haven't watched it yet, but I'll be posting about it next Monday.

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  2. One of my top 100 films! So glad you enjoyed and appreciated it!

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    1. Martin, this one was a big surprise. I wasn't sure of my overall feelings until the last act. It was interesting through the whole thing, but it all came together in the end. I'm so glad that I saw it.

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  3. Glad you gave this a good look Dan. Fantastic and well written review for the movie, which you should help to spread the word about it. Very, very few people have even heard about this movie, so it's a truly one of those hidden gem.

    As you stated, you have absolutely no idea that the movie is headed for that mind-boggling and unforgettable ending. I love how unexpectedly hilarious the movie was at times, most particularly the false translation and other basic misunderstandings between the characters.

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    1. Castor, it's weird because I've even seen this film described as a comedy. There are some really funny parts, but that made it even more unexpected to see where it went in the end. Thanks for the recommendation!

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  4. It's so nice and surprising to see Devils on the Doorstep here,it is one of my top 10 Chinese films,and my fave from Jiang.Countless laughable scenes and also thought provoking,isn't the ending great?!

    I'm glad you are digging Chinese language films,Dan,and you are welcome to my blog,I'm writing increasing posts about Chinese cinema,and I hope you will find them helpful.

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    1. Thanks David! I'm looking at your site now and will definitely start checking it out regularly. There are still so many Chinese films (and foreign films in general) that I need to see. This was a cool surprise for sure.

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  5. Wen Jiang's other films THE SUN ALSO RISES and IN THE HEAT OF THE SUN are definitely worth seeking out (though harder to get your hands on). His latest, LET THE BULLETS FLY, isn't as fulfilling but it's fun (and also the biggest money-maker in China after AVATAR).

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    1. That's good to know. I'll add them to my list, even if it may hard to get a hold of them. Any suggestions on the best play to look?

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