Jiang Wen’s Devils on the Doorstep screens this Sunday at Japan Society as part of a four-film weekend series on “Cinema and Empire.”
This week’s underseen bone-rattling giga-movie, Jiang Wen’s epic Devils on the Doorstep (2000) had a spare release here in 2002, and a NYFF appearance, but stateside audiences didn’t know quite how to digest this hairball, and few have bothered to try since. Shot in a propulsive panic and in stark black-&-white, the film feels awfully Japanese New Wavey—the sweaty ghosts of Oshima, Imamura, Koboyashi & Co. are deliberately ouijaed—but it’s Chinese, and sets up a crazed no-exit scenario in an occupied northern village in 1945: a splenetic Japanese soldier and his ass-covering translator are mysteriously dumped on the town reprobate, with menacing instructions to hold and not fold—and not let the news leak to the local J-forces.
Any knowledge you bring about Japanese atrocities on Chinese soil just keeps the voltage up, as the gaggle of villagers must decide what to do with the prisoners—keep them secret under the enemy’s noses, or simply execute them, and if so, who’s badass enough to do it? Jiang, a busy actor recognizable as the lead in Red Sorghum, plays the harried protagonist on the edge of stress collapse, but the movie itself blasts along like a Road Runner comedy; from Gatling gun wordplay (the translator reverses everybody’s meaning in virtually every conversation) to the last grinning severed head, it’s the Japanese anti-war equivalent to Kusturica and the Coens. Oddly banned in China (and condemned by the censors as “vulgar,” in counterpoint, we can assume, to Zhang Yimou’s lanterns and silk), the film could hardly be more vociferous in its spitting hatred for all things Japanese. So of course The Japan Society is showing it—albeit alongside the far more gentle Euro-mix of Oshima’s late game-changer Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.