Review: Devils on the Doorstep (2000)

Jiang Wen’s World War Two drama Devils on the Doorstep is both modern and classical. It’s shot like a contemporary indie feature with handheld cameras and a predominance of close-ups, but it’s also black and white with a soft film stock grain like films of old. Its subject matter gets downright grizzly at moments, but its pacing is that of a Hollywood classic, leisurely moving from scene to scene, focusing more on conversations than set pieces. This dual identity achieves two things. Firstly, Devils on the Doorstep is absolutely convincing in its historical setting. It feels like it was shot during the time period it is set in. This credibility is necessary to achieve the second point, that Devils on the Doorstep captures the barbarity of war without ever stooping to modern clichés of war being hell.

Winner of the Grand Prix at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival, Devils on the Doorstep follows Ma Dasan (Jiang Wen), a hapless peasant living in a remote Chinese village during the Japanese occupation in the waning days of World War Two. A few nights before Chinese New Year, a masked assailant dumps two sacks on Ma’s doorstep and tells Ma that he’ll be back on New Year’s Eve to collect them. Ma checks the sacks and finds two Japanese soldiers tied up within them, one a Chinese-born translator and the other a fierce Japanese national.

Nervous that the Japanese garrison stationed just outside the town will discover his captives, Ma brings the matter to the town elders and together they decide to interrogate the soldiers and keep them comfortably captive until the masked man returns to collect them. Of course, the masked man doesn’t return on New Year’s Eve like he said he would, so Ma and the villagers are left with deciding what to do with these imprisoned enemies.

Aspects of Devils on theDoorstep's plot remind me of a classical stage play. We have a restricted setting and a moral conundrum offered by a mysterious figure to a simple man. The simple man asks his friends for help because he knows of no other options, and his and his friends' own ignorance becomes as much an obstacle as the Japanese soldiers garrisoned nearby. As well, the masked assailant is never identified but instead appears as an almost supernatural figure who poses a moral challenge to the characters. Ma and his fellow villagers are confronted with how to treat the Japanese prisoners, highlighting the relationship between the Chinese and the Japanese as the central exploration of Jiang’s film.

The way Jiang explores this relationship is through humour and violence. Often humour and violence coexist within the scene, with the characters humourously attempting to placate the possible violence of the Japanese. In one scene, two bumbling Japanese soldiers appear at the house where Ma is hiding the prisoners. They have been harassing Ma’s friend and want to take advantage of the villagers’ fear of them by taking their food. Ma decides to cook a chicken for them, but as he panics while collecting some birds to butcher, one of the chickens wanders off and makes it to the basement where the prisoners are kept. The prisoners hastily carve a message into a piece of wood and tie it around the chicken’s neck, hoping the soldiers outside see it and free them.

As Ma cooks the meal and serves the soldiers, he spots the message around the loose chicken’s neck at the last minute and flings himself onto the ground to grab it. The soldiers wonder why he fell to the ground to grab the chicken and Ma makes a pathetic excuse about needing to catch the chicken to make them more food. Thinking him an idiot because he’s a rural Chinese man, the soldiers believe him and let him alone. His slapstick humour has saved him from their violence. The soldiers would have killed him had they found the message, but his own bumbling nature is his salvation.

Jiang’s camera highlights the differences between the Japanese and the Chinese. He shoots the Japanese soldiers on their daily march with a measured precision. The camera is stationary, panning over the soldiers as they pass. The smooth movements and restrained style reflect the passive uniformity of the Japanese soldiers. On the flipside he shoots Ma and the Chinese villagers with a handheld camera. Many of their conversations happen within confined living rooms. As the villagers kneel on their mats discussing what to do with the Japanese prisoners, Jiang’s camera moves from one face to another chaotically. He uses wide lenses and close-ups to accentuate how cramped the space is and how the gravity of the situation is forcing itself upon Ma. As certain scenes intensify, such as the opening scene with the masked assailant or the climatic dinner party, the camera’s movements intensify. The camera often loses focus on its subject as it hurriedly moves from one action to another.

The camera reflects Ma’s growing sense of panic. He’s a simple man who has always viewed the world in simplistic terms, but now, faced with a complex moral dilemma, his sheltered worldview is shattered. In the final shots of Devils on the Doorstep, Jiang abruptly switches to colour. He is showing how Ma Dasan saw everything in black and white, but now, at the end, when his choices have been made and he can only reflect on the naivety of his actions, he understands the complexity of the world he lives in.

The relationship between China and Japan is too complex to paint one or the other as simply a villain or a victim. Devils on the Doorstep wisely demonstrates that the relationship between these two nations is perpetually antagonistic by virtue of a history that cannot be left behind. The better instincts of the individual are often overwhelmed by the patriotic obligation of the nation. As Ma Dasan learns, in war doing the right thing is never so easy, and even if you can manage to do what is right, it is never enough.

9 out of 10

Devils on the Doorstep (2000, China)

Directed by Jiang Wen; written by Shi Ping, Shi Jianquan, Jiang Wen, and You Fengwei inspired by Survivor by You Fengwei; starring Jiang Wen, Kagawa Teruyuki, Yuan Ding, and Jiang Hongbo.