Directed by Jiang Wen
The immortal Buster Keaton once said that tragedy is a close-up; comedy, a long shot. Horace Walpole put it in another perspective when he wrote that, “Life is a comedy for those who think…and a tragedy for those who feel.” Both of these great men were correct. Perspective is everything in life. If someone slips on a banana-peel and pratfalls, it might be funny to those nearby. But I guarantee you that the person who fell will have a very different opinion on the matter. Humor and tragedy are polarizing issues in that they represent opposite sides of the same coin. Most films try to pick one interpretation of their events and run with it, resulting in traditional comedies and dramas. But there are the rare occasions when filmmakers embrace both perspectives, reveling in both the intrinsic drama and absurdity of their plots. These are the black comedies.
The terms black humor is thrown around a lot these days. Originally, the term was invented by Surrealist André Breton to describe comedies where the humor was derived from cynism and skepticism. But the term has many derivatives, including black comedy. Black comedy focuses on taboo topics, in particular death, and takes a satirical look on them while maintaining a sense of seriousness. Therefore, the goal of black comedy is to cause the audience to experience laughter and discomfort at the same time. One of the most famous examples of black comedy is Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), a film that found humor in such topics as nuclear warfare and the complete extinction of life on earth.
Thirty-six years later, Chinese actor/director Jiang Wen would release a film that can only be described as Dr. Strangelove’s natural successor. The film, Devils on the Doorstep, takes place during World War Two in an occupied Chinese village named Rack-Armor Terrace. It focuses on a local peasant named Ma Dasan (played by Wen) who is confronted with a strange and dangerous dilemma. One night, someone breaks into Ma’s house and leaves two men tied in gunnysacks. Ma opens them to find a Japanese soldier and a Chinese interpreter. To his horror, the strange man, identified only as “Me,” tells him at gunpoint to keep them alive for the next few days until the eve of the Chinese New Year. During this time, Ma is additionally instructed to interrogate the two. Of course, “Me” never returns, and Ma is left with two prisoners in a town patrolled every day by the Japanese Imperial Army.
The two prisoners, Japanese sergeant Kosaburo Hanaya and the Chinese interpreter Dong Hanchen, are a source of great strife for the villagers. Hanaya is a jingoistic Japanese imperialist who yells that he will rape the village’s women and kill their men. He begs his captors for an honorable death and tries to convince Dong to teach him how to insult their captors’ ancestors. Dong, terrified and fearful for his life, instead teaches Hanaya a series of cheerful greetings. When Hanaya screams “Happy New Year” over and over again to Ma and his lover Yu’er, the confused couple asks Dong why he is so polite yet yelling. “Oh, that’s how the Japanese always are. They scream when they say thank you.” When Ma and Yu’er leave, Hanaya bewilderedly asks Dong why they acted so happily. Dong replies, “Oh, they’re Chinese. Even if they get offended, they act polite.”
And therein lays one of the central dynamics of the film. Not only can both sides be duped by imaginary cultural stereotypes made up by Dong, they are readily willing to accept them. While humorous, it betrays deep-seated racist stereotypes, i.e. that the Chinese literally believe the Japanese to be perpetually angry demons and that the Japanese believe the Chinese to be weak-willed, overly polite inferiors. Therein lays the black humor. We laugh at their misunderstandings. But if we take a step back and look at the big picture, it becomes frightening how revealing these reactions are.
Days turn to weeks and weeks to months as still there is no sign of “Me.” Soon, the villagers grow tired of taking care of the two and conspire to kill them. They draw lots and Ma is chosen to kill them. But instead of killing them, he hides them in a watchtower of the Great Wall which borders the village. Eventually, the villagers discover Ma’s duplicity and force him to return them to a nearby Japanese encampment. They figure that as a reward for their protection of the two soldiers, they should be given two cartfuls of grain. And so a delegation from the village escorts them to the camp. Hanaya tearfully reports for duty but is immediately beaten savagely by his superior officers. It turns out that the two were thought to be dead. As a result, Hanaya was revered as a hero by both his unit and his village back home. By returning alive, he has disgraced and dishonored his unit. Oh, the sweet, merciless irony…
Warning: The following paragraph contains spoilers.
From here, the plot twists through a series of unfortunate events and tragic misunderstandings that lead ultimately to the destruction of the village, the murder of the villagers by the Japanese army, and the death of Ma. Time and again Hanaya is saved from achieving his honorable death. First, he is disgraced by his officers. Then, he is stopped from committing hara-kiri when they discover that Japan has officially surrendered. He ends the film another bewildered P.O.W. In the film’s last scene, he is tasked with executing Ma as punishment for his murder of two Japanese soldiers. That is the final irony: he must execute the man responsible for his survival.
And so we are confronted with a film that not only exploits sensitive topics and subjects; it revels in them. And Jiang Wen paid the price for his genius. Although the film opened at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival and ultimately won the Grand Prix (the second place prize behind the illustrious Golden Palm), it was banned in its native China by the Chinese Film Bureau. Both the Chinese censors and the Japanese producers balked at such ideas as showing Japanese soldiers killing Chinese civilians and Chinese people as backwards and gullible. Reportedly, the Chinese Film Bureau dispatched men to Cannes in an attempt to block its premiere and seize the film’s negative.
And yet, despite all of the controversy surrounding its depiction of the Japanese occupation of China and the reaction of the local peasants, Jiang insists that he film isn’t anti-Japanese or anti-Chinese. Jiang claims that the film was meant to highlight the human instinct to blame and punish others for disasters and misfortunes. And certainly, the film achieves that end. And it accomplishes so much more. Viewed from afar, the events reach such absurd and ironic depths that it is impossible to laugh. And yet, that inner voice in the back of our minds reminds us that these things may have happened to real people. The story is fictional, but the actions of the Japanese against Chinese civilians and vice versa are based in reality. If anything, the film is a plea for understanding. But you know what? I don’t think most people will appreciate that. I think that they will have too much trouble deciding whether or not to laugh or cry at the last scene.