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Devils on the Doorstep

Posted at 12:35 PM on August 18, 2006 by Euan Kerr

Over the last few months as I read various books I kept running into references to the dark World War II satire "Devils on the doorstep."

The first was in Peter Hessler's journalistic memoir "Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China's Past and Present" which described meeting the writer-director-star Wen Jiang.

Intrigued, I hunted down the DVD, and I am glad I did. Jiang sets his tale in a small Chinese town occupied by a company of Japanese soldiers. The occupiers, who form a military band are more rude than dangerous. They only know one tune, but they march through the town twice a day, making their presence felt.

Things take a turn for the worse when a mysterious night visitor dumps two trussed Japanese soldiers in the house of the mild-mannered Ma Dasan (Jiang.) Ma never identifies the intruder, in part because he is concentrating on the pistol being held to his head. The visitor tells Ma to take care of the prisoners, and interrogate them in his spare time. After saying he will be back in five days to collect the men, he leaves as suddenly as he arrived.

The hang-dog Ma Dasan is left with a big problem, and the story spins out as he tries to meet the mysterious strangers demands. How does he keep the prisoners safe, without the Japanese company in the village finding out? How should he interrogate them? He enlists his neighbors help, although they are not much use.

Jiang is superb as a bumbling everyman who is trying to just get by without causing a fuss. Ultimately he is forced into deciding what is the right thing to do without getting himself killed.

While there is a lot of comedy in "Devils" the threat of violence is never far from the surface, and ultimately Jiang drops his characters into a brutal cauldron of savagery. It's a film that leaves you with the hairs up on the back of your neck, and a whole lot to think about.

The film won the Grand Prix at Cannes, but as often seems to happen with such winners, it has been a ticket to being pretty much ignored in the US. It's well worth a look.

August 2006
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