Bitter Absurdity-of-War Fiction Set in the Shadow of the Great Wall


A bitter absurdity-of-war fiction—the sort Heller and Vonnegut crystallized in the ’60s and Balkan filmmakers later turned into a cottage industry—this satirical epic by actor-director Jiang Wen is a Chinese period piece more inclined to burn barns than raise red lanterns. Set in the shadow of the Great Wall during the final months of the Japanese occupation, the movie barrels from frisky Ealing horseplay to cackling Kusturica farce. The uneasy harmony between Chinese peasants and the local Japanese garrison is disrupted when a Japanese soldier and his Chinese interpreter end up in the excitable villagers’ custody. In the lead role, Jiang gives a powder keg performance, all double takes and lunging motions, and his direction is no less robust. The movie exists in a state of constant disorientation, the better to orchestrate its sardonic reversals. The final act 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. Extras include an introduction by Steven Soderbergh.

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