Gangs of New York isn’t the only bloody historical pageant in town this week. As steeped in ethnic hatreds as Martin Scorsese’s Lower Manhattan turf battle, the Chinese satirical epic Devils on the Doorstep is a bitter absurdity-of-war fiction—the sort Heller and Vonnegut crystallized in the ’60s and Balkan filmmakers subsequently turned into a cottage industry (Emir Kusturica’s Underground, Danis Tanovic’s No Man’s Land). This second feature by actor-turned-director Jiang Wen—set in the shadow of the Great Wall during the final months of the Japanese occupation—keeps up a pummeling tempo and bawdy, throttling energy that prompted the disapproving Beijing Film Bureau to remark, “In general, the style of the film is vulgar.” Indeed, this is a Chinese period piece more inclined to burn barns than raise red lanterns. Scored to farmyard squawks and a marching band, the movie barrels from frisky Ealing horseplay to cackling Kusturica farce.
It’s 1945 in the northern village of Rack Armour Terrace, and the local peasants maintain an uneasy harmony with the Japanese garrison, whose leaders parade by daily on horseback dispensing candy to kids, brass ensemble in tow. The trouble starts one night when credulous, bumbling hero Ma Dasan (played by the director) is interrupted mid-tryst by a rap on the door. An unseen man who identifies himself only as “Me” entrusts Dasan with two squirming burlap sacks for safekeeping, saying he will return in a few days. The contents, much to the consternation of the excitable villagers: a Japanese soldier and his Chinese interpreter.
Shot in rich, shadowy black-and-white, Devils chronicles, with increasingly amused irony, the relationship between reluctant captors and befuddled captives. While the humiliated Japanese prisoner spits vitriol in the hope that his custodians will kill him, the terrified aide mistranslates the invective as supplicating jabber, and everyone is only too happy to use racist stereotyping to smooth over the confusion. “Japs sound the same whether they’re happy or angry,” the interpreter explains. After weeks, there’s still no sign of the mysterious “Me,” and the peasants, resentful at having to keep alive their unwanted guests, convene for one clownish brainstorming session after another; the semi-slapstick botched schemes culminate in a plan to return the hostages to the Japanese army in exchange for grain.
Jiang, who played Gong Li’s lover in Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum (1987) and directed the highly regarded if little-seen In the Heat of the Sun (1994), gives a powder-keg performance, all double takes and lunging motions, and his direction is no less robust. With a camera that charges into the thick of the frequently erupting commotions, the movie exists in a state of constant disorientation, the better to orchestrate its sardonic reversals.
In a press-kit interview, Jiang concedes that Devils belongs to the “Chinese tradition of anti-Japanese war movies.” The Film Bureau disagreed, censuring Jiang for his overly sympathetic portrayal of the invaders; they also failed to appreciate the brief nudity and a much deployed epithet that the subtitles render as “turtlefucker.” (The movie was temporarily pulled from circulation after its 2000 premiere at Cannes, where it won the second-place Grand Prix—it was then nearly three hours and is now, owing to producer mandates, a snappy 140 minutes.)
Though it mounts a head-on critique of xenophobia (and does show the Japanese captive briefly bonding with the villagers over their mutual peasantry), it’s safe to say that Devils on the Doorstep will do nothing to ease Sino-Japanese relations. The final hour amply illustrates the Japanese military’s murderous brutality, though Jiang’s larger project is to simulate the volatile madness of wartime mentality—nowhere more so than in the nerve-racking, party-hearty buildup to the concluding roundelay of carnage. The film ends, logically, in a pall of exhaustion. By the final shot, which assumes the viewpoint of a decapitated head, its appalled comedy has swelled, beyond outrage, to a pitch of punch-drunk hysteria.
A gentler current of absurdist humor ripples through Il Posto (also at Film Forum), Ermanno Olmi’s limpid 1961 feature that follows a small-town lad as he heads to the city to begin his “job for life” at a megacorporation. Majestic predecessor of modern-day drone dramas like Office Space and this year’s chilling Time Out, Olmi’s late neo-realist classic in essence identifies three stages of workplace alienation: the big interview, the queasy first day, and—adding seasonal frisson to this ever more timely film—the crash-and-burn company holiday shindig.
Teenage Domenico (non-professional Sandro Panseri) aces the test, which consists of a fractions problem, a physical involving stretches and knee-bends, and a mental-health quiz with yes/no questions like “Does the future seem hopeless to you?” Not for now, anyway. The shy boy locks eyes with another candidate, the poised, pretty Magali (Loredana Detto, the future Signora Olmi), and there’s a lemony-fresh nouvelle vague scent to their lunchtime stroll through booming Milan—guardedly flirting as they chat, window-shop, and, crucially, share an espresso spoon.
Day One brings all manner of rude awakenings. His department requires no new clerks, so Domenico lands the ill-defined post of apprentice messenger. Worse, he and Magali are assigned to different buildings, and company policy (incompatible lunch breaks and clock-out times) serves to sunder the prospective lovers as effectively as a Montague-Capulet feud. Domenico gets his hopes up for the New Year’s Eve party, but the night, guaranteed to inspire shudders of recognition, holds only drink-to-forget mortification.
The then 30-year-old Olmi’s second feature (he had been house documentarian for the Edisonvolta electric company in the ’50s), Il Posto mirrors its protagonist’s wide-eyed reticence with a tersely observant naturalism. Work and faith are the filmmaker’s recurring themes—sometimes considered as one, as in his Palme d’Or-winning agrarian saga, The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978). Olmi, subject of a Walter Reade retro last year, once said, “Work is man’s chance to express himself. . . . What I am against is the relationship man has today with the world in which he works.” Il Posto‘s grim final image sums up the alienation inherent in that relationship: Domenico, now one step higher in the byzantine corporate hierarchy, gets his first true glimpse of the indistinguishable days that stretch before him.