A small village is under Japanese occupation during World War II. A humble peasant named Dasan has the whole village talking with rumors of a mistress. During a night of surreptitious love-making, a package is delivered to his door: two Japanese POWs. One is a Japanese soldier and the other is a Chinese Translator for the Japanese. The two men beg for death but Dasan can’t and refuses to commit such an inhumane act. Rather, he opts to engage in a nerve-racking hide-and-seek game with the prisoners and the Japanese military. But with the constant anxiety of being caught and the pressure from the other villagers to kill the prisoners, Dasan’s mind is about to explode. No matter which path he chooses, it just doesn’t seem to be the right one!
Every now and again, there will be a film that comes along and captivates your heart and your mind. When the final reel finishes and the credits begin to roll, you can’t help but to stay submerged within the film. You want to decode every message, digest every frame, savior every line. These films are such a rarity in this day and age. Sure, we have the smash hits, the independent darlings, the heart-aching dramas…but to have one film take all of the cinematic elements and mesh them together for a product that is practically perfect, that my friends, is a rarity.
First and foremost, director Wen Jiang must be applauded. As trivial notoriety to this film, yes, it was banned in its home country of China. The film was okay-ed by the committee that overlooks film, but when it came time to distribute…well, it got the thumbs down. Since this 2000 incident, Wen Jiang has not been able to make (direct) another film. While he has acted in such films as WARRIORS OF HEAVEN AND EARTH, his true talent is, no doubt, behind the camera. It may be very ballsy for me to say this, but DEVIL IN THE DOORSTEP may very well be the Chinese CITIZEN KANE.
The film starts off with the most basic archetype of a comedic film: a preposterous situation is thrown upon our protagonist, which in this case is Dasan (played by Jiang himself). Two prisoners are wrapped in a sack, gagged, and miraculously tossed into Jiang’s home. The kidnapper’s identity remains a mystery with no explanation provided other than the orders to keep these two men alive. Being a time of Japanese occupation in China, when Dasan discovers that the two men were both in Japanese military: one a Chinese translator and the other a Japanese soldier, he realizes what a predicament he’s in. What ensue are quite comedic moments that are forced upon the hapless villagers. With a superbly written script that continually perpetuates Dasan’s situation and makes us laugh, the film always captures our undivided attention.
Many Chinese war films paint the Japanese as cruel, barbaric, and inhumane devils. None of them have an ounce of humanity in their souls and they are nothing more than hell manifested in human form. Wen Jiang takes a different approach. While at first the Japaese POW is a hot-tempered rage-spewing soldier, as the time passes, the hospitality of the Chinese peasants win him over. He realizes that his assumptions of the Chinese are a fallacy and in return, accept them. In a way, his soul has been cleansed. While the Japanese soldier is slowly educating himself, Dasan is struggling with his conscience. Every day he’s pressured to kill the two prisoners, because all they can bring is trouble. He’s afraid, but he’s not sure if he’s afraid of killing or being killed. This duel inner-battle spirals around each other like a mesmerizing helix. From a humanistic stand point, this is one war film that doesn’t focus on the physical horrors of war, but mainly the mental…for most of the film at least.
I usually like to avoid pointing out a certain moment in a film to watch out for, because usually that one aspect of the film ultimately becomes it’s only redeeming quality to most people (i.e. the beginning and end of DEAD OR ALIVE). However, by mentioning the numbing climax, I’m warning you: this movie has one of the most grueling moments in film. While the actual scene doesn’t highlight any of the gore, the true horror that haunts us the most is the intentions and the mentality behind the actions. Although we see many atrocities being committed, the most crushing blow is the revelation of the Japanese Army’s status. Wen Jiang, with a genius stroke, paints an image of such cruelty and helplessness while never pointing a finger at just any one side. His message isn’t that the Japanese Army is the lone sinners, but the war itself. It isn’t so much about the atrocities. but the situation and environment a mind is forced to subdue to in times of war.
Spielberg famously used black and white for SCHINDLER’S LIST and the eventual reveal of a certain coat at the very end. To make it as short as possible, Wen Jiang does Spielberg even one better. The ending slapped my synapses and shot-gunned it image into my mind. I was just overwhelmed. What started off as a simple comedic farce became THE most chilling, emotional, and thought-provoking film I have seen in the last five years. DEVILS ON THE DOORSTEP has easily become one of my favorite films.
I usually consider myself on top of things when it comes to films. For some reason, this film had slipped through a crack. The moment I read about it the subject instantly captivated me. With the situation between China and Japan escalating, and having already read most of the books dissecting the issue, discovering films about the subject seemed only right. When I went to look for it under the special interest section at my local Best Buy, I found nothing. I then moved to the drama section and again, nothing. I went on a limb and checked out action, nothing. One last drive in my mind told me to check comedy, which I thought would be a total waste of time. Low and behold, the film was in the comedy aisle. I invite you all to watch this film. While the subject matter may be a touchy issue, its message is a universal appeal. I really can’t give this film enough praise. If there’s only one film I could recommend for the rest of my life, then it would no doubt be DEVILS ON THE DOORSTEP.
The disc is pretty bare bones. Aside form the introduction by Steven Soderbergh and a trailer, there are no special features. The video itself is beautiful for black and white and the audio is a simple but effective 2.0. There’s an interview with the director in the pamphlet included with the DVD. Sure, its bare bones, but this DVD is more than worth it. Don’t hesitate, buy this film.