Every month, in the Close Reading column we will breakdown a specific scene from a film that demands closer analysis. This month we take a look at Jiang Wen’s Devils on the Doorstep.
Cheese is better than chocolate, and Chaplin is superior to Keaton. Tea is for weaklings who can’t yet drink coffee, and, sorry to all my Southern friends out there, but Dr. Pepper is abysmal. I take great pride in picking sides, and I do so because of this persistent feeling that each choice says something about me. Put them all together and they must in some way define my character.
We need dichotomies; these sides that we can point back to as clear and definitive explanations for who we are and what we stand for. Such separation haunts our political present, as it remains prevalent in times of stress, chaos, and violence. Amidst such a backdrop of devastation and helplessness, we cling to the idea of a more peaceful and orderly structure. Such is the case in Jiang Wen Devils on the Doorstep (2000). The film tells the story of a Chinese peasant, Ma Dasan (Wen), as he and his fellow villagers struggle to hide two Japanese soldiers who have inexplicably appeared in their village during the Second Sino-Japanese War.
Opposing sides are forced to interact as Dasan must hide and communicate with these two men. The first, Kosabyrho Hanaya (Kagawa Teruyuku), is an aggressive and proud sergeant, while the Chinese interpreter Dong Hanchen (Yuan Ding) remains submissive. Jiang transports the audience to a world in which everything is one way or the other; you are a civilian or a soldier and Chinese or Japanese.
These dichotomies even extend to the mise-en-scene (the film is shot in black and white). But just as Jiang presents us with these opposites, he self-reflexively imparts the ludicrousness in believing such clear contrasts exist.
Blind absurdity controls the narrative from the beginning, as the two soldiers are randomly dropped onto Dasan’s doorstep by a masked figure who calls himself Me (Haibin Li). Jiang increases this absurdity as he inserts subcategories the audience knows, and then flips their assumed meanings: light vs. darkness, humor vs. drama, reality vs. fantasy. By subverting these tropes, he forces the audience to confront irrationality and spectacle throughout the film. Truth and guidance are consistently discovered in the dark of night, while light only serves as a mask with which to hide. Slapstick humor, the quintessential form of lighthearted or “easy” comedy, is performed by Japanese soldiers as they hit and abuse innocent Chinese civilians.
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Each opposite within the narrative builds together until the final climactic scene destroys any remaining shroud of definitive moral righteousness on either side.
The Chinese have taken back the village, and now the camera remains in the center of the walled camp, occasionally gliding around the walls to show the mass of Chinese villagers shrouded in light, eagerly awaiting a show. The glow of the shadows bounces off the cold stone walls, making the sun seem all the brighter and warmer. Dong, the Chinese-born interpreter for the Japanese is sentenced to a public execution in the square. A group that until now only experienced misery and anxiety, the Chinese people are now carelessly at ease. As the Chinese General, Major Gao (David Wu) publicly condemns Dong, the camera intermittently cuts to the villagers howling with laughter. This tonal schism in the narrative jostles us; just what is it we are supposed to be feeling? A gunshot bangs, just another noise amid the recurrent laughter.
The camera then follows a disguised Dasan, hellbent on revenge as he maliciously murders multiple Japanese soldiers after the war is over and is then ordered to death by Major Gao. Returning to the square in which Dong had been executed, the camera peers back into an audience lit by sunshine. Dasan’s friends and family surround him and prepare to watch the spectacle of his death, light serving as a spotlight on a stage rather than as a beacon of truth. They all aimlessly cheer, again overcome by the insincerity of light as authenticity and warmth. In a perverse twist of fate, Gao orders that Hanaya, the previously captive Japanese soldier with whom Dasan built a sort of friendship, be the one to perform the beheading. As the camera peers up at the sickly Hanaya, we see his newly pock-marked face as he prepares his sword, but it is not the ill that will perish today. Jiang rests the camera on an extreme close-up of Dasan’s neck, a bug fluttering on his skin. Hanaya flicks off the nit, the last living thing that will ever feel his mortality. Dasan looks up and stares at Hanaya, the dried blood caked on his face, and with little hesitation Hanaya screams and he plunges his sword through Dasan.
As his head rolls nine times, the traditional Chinese sign of a peaceful death, the camera’s lens takes Dasan’s perspective and becomes an almost blinding white-wash of color. The scene unfolds, Hanaya bows and returns his sword, the saturated color seeping into the frame.
Jiang then cuts to a medium close-up of Dasan’s severed head, the blinding brightness transforming into a deep and dark red. Non-diegetic Chinese music echoes peacefully, and the subsequent diegetic chaos that we should hear in the background is cut. The jarring red remains as the credits roll.
Throughout Devils on the Doorstep, Jiang has played with us by introducing strong contrasts and changing their expected definitions, but in these final shots all the visual dichotomies we have come to know are blurred. This abrupt modification in mise-en-scene masterfully depicts the sudden moral ambiguity of the situation. Is it wrong to put our protagonist to death, or was just revenge taken for all the lives he ended? Things are no longer clear, though Jiang shows us they never have been. The film’s tonal shifts certainly serve to condemn war as absurdist and irrelevant. But beyond that, these final scenes maintain that the moral principles we align to are as ambiguous, changeable, and irrelevant as the definitions Jiang present us with. Only when one can grasp the irrationality of moral absolutism, just as we do in these final few frames, can one begin to see things as they really are.