A potentially sharp, black comedy about nationalism and rote thinking lies beneath the rubble of “Devils on the Doorstep,” a drastically overlong and frustratingly discursive portrait of a tiny Chinese village during WWII, which is suddenly discombobulated by the dumping of two prisoners in its midst. At its present length of almost 2¾ hours, pic is both artistically disorganized and commercially a nonstarter, even within the specialized market for East Asian fare. Radical cutting by some 60 minutes could, however, result in a far more focused picture without any loss of content, and bring its undoubted qualities into sharper focus, with a shot at specialized distribution then reasonable.
Some two years in production, from script to Cannes premiere, “Devils” has all the classic faults of a picture not only directed by an actor but by an actor who is his own producer. A major star in his country and a well-known lead in some of the best mainland Chinese movies of the past 15 years (“Hibiscus Town,” “Red Sorghum,” “Black Snow,” “The Emperor’s Shadow”), Jiang Wen made a striking helming debut six years ago with the semi-autobiographical coming-of-ager “In the Heat of the Sun.” That pic’s overlength was subsequently corrected by trimming following its 1994 Venice preem; “Devils,” however, requires major surgery rather than just having its nails clipped.
Starkly shot in B&W, largely driven by character rather than incident, and laden with frantic dialogue scenes shot hand-held and in closeup, it’s an initially exhilarating piece of filmmaking that quickly wears down the viewer with its excesses. Scenes are consistently played way beyond their point, diluting both the comedy (which soon becomes repetitious) and the dramatic tension. If ever there was a project on which a producer needed to cry “Enough, already!,” “Devils” is it.
The deeply frustrating thing is that the movie contains some excellent ideas, fine performances and a script that clearly has something to say about the destructive confluence of xenophobia, ignorance and instilled prejudices. By centering the movie on an average Chinese peasant, driven by self-preservation and fearful respect for established norms, Jiang also elevates the comedy in its latter stages into a rural riff on Lu Xun’s classic 20th-century novella “The True Story of Ah Q.”
Opening plunges the viewer into the life of a tiny lakeside burg in northeast China in January 1945, close to the Great Wall. Japanese troops are parading through the streets by day and the doltish Ma Dasan (Jiang) is humping his lover, young widow Yu’er (Jiang Hongbo), behind closed doors by night. Suddenly, there’s a knock on the door, a gun is pressed to his forehead, and a Chinese voice who identifies himself solely as “Me” orders Ma to take care of two prisoners trussed up in sacks. “Me” tells Ma to interrogate them, record the results and await collection in five days’ time, on Chinese New Year’s Eve.
The sacks contain a Japanese soldier, Hanaya (Teruyuki Kagawa), and an army translator, the ethnically Chinese Dong (Yuan Ding), who are dragged in front of the village’s seniors and chaotically interrogated. These early scenes have an almost Ealing Comedy-like flavor as the locals, thrust into a situation that’s overturned their placid existence, struggle to cope with their unexpected duties with a mixture of pomposity and boneheaded ignorance.
Hanaya is a fanatical Japanese, and the script has considerable fun as Dong (caught between two cultures) deliberately mistranslates his anti-Chinese diatribes to keep the peace with their captors. When Hanaya asks Dong to teach him some Chinese insults, Dong coaches him in the phrase “Brother and sister-in-law, Happy New Year!,” furthering confusing Ma and Yu’er, who’ve been put in charge of the two prisoners.
When no one turns up to collect either the captives or their testimonies, the villagers become nervous and decide to execute them. The job falls to Ma, who’s already under heavy psychological pressure from his aunt: “You’ve a mistress in your bed,” she rails, “and Japs in your cellar.” Unused to any kind of responsibility, Ma panics and hides the prisoners in the Great Wall; when the villagers discover what he’s done, they turn on him, despite a spirited defense of his situation by Yu’er.
Cornered into action, Ma goes to a nearby town to hire a professional assassin, the venerable “One-Stroke” Liu (Chen Qiang), who, despite some fancy kung-fu, mysteriously proves incapable of killing the prisoners. By this time the picture has already run an hour and a half, with most of the situation’s original comedy well past its sell-by date.
Things briefly revive as the story moves into act two. It’s now six months since the opening events, and the villagers are worried that keeping their charges any longer could be misinterpreted as collaboration with the enemy. They decide to return them to the Japanese army after getting them to sign a document about how well they were treated, and thereby win some badly needed grain. But the regional commander, Sakatsuka (Kenya Sawada), turns out to be a crazed fanatic whose unexpected response to the situation triggers events that prove disastrous for all concerned.
Like many actors turned director, Jiang never appears to know when scenes and individual performances have reached their natural climax. Even subsidiary sequences, such as when Ma goes in search of an assassin, are turned into full production numbers, and the many scenes of the villagers discussing and bickering over what to do could easily be cut to a fraction of their length. Things aren’t helped by the visual style of the latter, with Gu Changwei’s handheld camera exhaustingly following every verbal cut and thrust in closeup.
The overall shape of the movie becomes clear only in an extended, 20-minute postwar coda, as a Nationalist Chinese commander (David Wu), flanked by gum-chewing Americans, instills fresh prejudices in the minds of the locals. The dumb Ma, who — like Lu Xun’s antihero, Ah Q — is still blissfully unaware of life’s bigger picture, buys into the self-serving message of his new overlords.
Casting throughout is impeccable, from Jiang’s own big-boned, visceral peasant through the Japanese military types and Chinese villagers. As the only actress with a sizable role, Jiang Hongbo is adequate as Ma’s squeeze, though her character is underwritten, to the detriment of the film. Ace lenser Gu, who’s done regular work in the past with Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, contribs strikingly hard B&W images, dark and shadowy in interiors and fractionally overexposed in outdoor scenes, with an effective switch into color at the very end. Production design and costumes are ultra-realistic, conveying the harsh realities of life in rural northeast China.
For the record, the pic’s Chinese title literally means “The Nips Are Here,” using the traditional pejorative term for the Japanese (and foreigners in general).