Judging from some of the comments that have been made over the last few entries in this series, I need to clarify the Scenic Routes mission statement a bit. Contrary to what you might reasonably expect, this column is not simply a collection of the Greatest Movie Scenes of All Frickin’ Time (though many will certainly qualify for that distinction). Nor, despite a certain degree of willful eclecticism on my part, is it meant to be either Awesome Scenes From Otherwise Unremarkable Films or Overlooked Moments in Musty Classics. It’s all of the above, actually, and a lot more besides. The key word is memorable. For whatever reason—and that’s precisely what I’ll always try to analyze—the scene in question has stuck with me over the years, rattling around in my brain, oftentimes coming to represent the movie as a whole in my memory. (I believe Charlie Kaufman would call that phenomenon synecdoche.)
This week, for example, I’ve chosen a scene that, while highly entertaining in its own right, made its impression on me primarily by being not at all what I’d expected. Devils On The Doorstep is the second feature directed by Chinese actor Jiang Wen, who’s probably best known in the U.S. as one of the stars of Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum. It played in Competition at Cannes in 2000, a couple of years before I started attending, and won the Grand Prix, which is basically second prize. (Dancer In The Dark took the Palme D’Or that year.) More than two years passed before it finally opened in the U.S., and somehow, over that time, I got the impression that Devils On The Doorstep was a bleak, grueling, and violent black-and-white anti-war film—possibly great, but certainly harrowing. A movie to be slightly feared, in other words. So I was quite surprised, just 15 minutes into the picture, to be laughing my ass off. After Devils totally bombed in its micro-blip NYC run (total U.S. gross: $19,000), I remember thinking, “Damn, if I could have just shown people those few minutes, it might’ve actually had a chance.”
So, my retroactive guinea pigs, quick setup: Devils On The Doorstep takes place during what we think of as WWII, but what the characters in the movie view primarily as the Second Sino-Japanese War (which began in 1937, two years before Hitler got all grabby and genocidal). We’re in rural China, where an ordinary villager, played by Jiang Wen himself, awakens in the middle of the night to find that two captive Japanese soldiers have been deposited, yes, on his doorstep, by an unseen figure who, when asked his name, replies only “Me.” Unsure what to do with these two prisoners—one of whom turns out to be a Chinese translator working for the Japanese army—Jiang rounds up the village council, which decides to conduct an interrogation. As you’re about to see, however, the two bound men don’t exactly share the same agenda.
For my money, there are few comedy tropes as reliably hilarious as deliberate mistranslation. On the surface, this is basically the same idea seen in Life Is Beautiful (which won the same prize at Cannes two years earlier), in which Roberto Benigni transforms a Nazi guard’s barked instructions into the rules for a child’s game. But there are a couple of important variations that give the routine a little more bite in this instance. First, the translator knows what’s actually being said, and you can see the desperation in his face as a result—if these guys ever somehow find out what the Japanese dude wants, or manage to intuit it from his belligerent tone, it’s execution time, potentially. Second, Benigni’s subversion falls squarely into the hallowed tradition of the little guy sticking it to The Man—you can easily imagine, say, Bill Murray in his prime doing the same routine, except with references to whorehouses and Happy Hour—whereas here both speaker and translator are equally helpless and subjugated.
And there’s a third distinction as well, perhaps more crucial than the other two. Unlike Life Is Beautiful—and unlike almost every notable American comedy of the last 10 years—Devils On The Doorstep doesn’t look as if somebody just hurriedly set the camera down, pushed the actors into center frame, and yelled “Action!” Working with noted cinematographer Gu Chang-wei (Red Sorghum, Ju Dou, Farewell My Concubine), Jiang shoots this scene in noirish shadow, creating a potent contrast between its ravishing form and its absurdist content. You can see this most plainly in the repeated shot of the village council as seen by the prisoners through the cloth barrier—a group of indistinct silhouettes framed by pockets of bright sunlight. It’s lovely and ridiculous at the same time. Granted, this isn’t The Hangover or anything—if Devils On The Doorstep is a comedy (arguable in itself), it’s definitely a black comedy. But it’s still bracing, at least in a fairly contemporary film, to see blatant silliness shot with such pizzazz.
(Another visual flourish that I quite like—and this is precisely the sort of thing you may not notice consciously unless you sit down and watch the scene multiple times, specifically looking for stuff to write about—happens at the precise moment when the translator decides, “Fuck this noise, I need to go another route here.” Look at the shot immediately after the Japanese officer—by the way, that’s Teruyuki Kagawa, who recently played the morose, unemployed salaryman in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata; talk about your range. Anyway, look at the shot right after he says that he came to China with the express intention of raping its women. Jiang cuts to the translator, whose head fills the left side of the frame, and then does a quick lateral pan, reframing the translator in close-up on the right. The movement isolates him, negating the space between the two captives. Try finding a shot even that mildly sophisticated in a Hollywood film that’s attempting to be funny.)
Now, I don’t want to mislead anybody. The film as a whole is not a laugh riot, and does in fact have some pretty bleak things to say regarding the futility of war. It does not end happily. But I still vividly remember the liberated feeling this scene inspired in me—the sudden realization that I wasn’t about to endure the foreign-cinema equivalent of dry bran flakes. I often flash back to it when on the fence about heading out to see some highly acclaimed but vaguely nutritious-sounding new art film, reminding myself that my assumptions may be way off base. I think about the translator and the Japanese officer breathing hard in unison at the end of that final mistranslated tirade, and the little victorious glance that the latter shoots the former—“Hells yeah, they’re sure to kill us now!”—and I go give the new movie a chance. (And it then often turns out to be boring as ass, but whatever.) And now I have an opportunity to see whether showing people this clip sells the movie better than does (did) a traditional review. Let me know.