JULY 24, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 3
on His Doorstep
Cannes, Jiang Wen's new film got a top prize, but in China it may get
him seven years on the blacklist
Chinese director Jiang Wen won the Grand Prize for his film Devils
on the Doorstep at this year's Cannes Film Festival .
By RICHARD CORLISS
His name sounds like "John Wayne," and Jiang Wen has a solid star bearing
to go with the cowboy stubbornness. Mainland China's most famous actor
(Red Sorghum, Black Snow) and most vigorous director (In the Heat of the
Sun), Jiang delivers his sharp opinions with an implacable stare that
could turn the nastiest gunslinger into cornmeal. But now he is up against
a marauding posse of film bureaucrats. The showdown may get bloody.
Devils on the Doorstep is Jiang's scalding tragicomedy set in a Chinese
village during the wartime occupation by the Japanese. One villager, Ma
Dasan (played by Jiang), is told to hold a Japanese officer and his Chinese
translator as hostages. The film, which traces the villagers' fear and
the soldiers' brutality, won the Grand Prix (second place) at this May's
Cannes festivala high honor, and a victory for Chinese cinema.
The censors at the Film Bureau didn't see it that way. They were furious
that Jiang had entered the film in the festival without their permission,
after receiving their detailed critique of the script and the finished
work. They sent two officials to Cannes to try to dissuade the festival
from screening Devils and demanded that Jiang hand over the negative (which
was not in China). Now, according to reports from Asian film circles,
the authorities plan to punish Jiang's film, and his defense of it, by
forbidding him to work in China for seven years.
ALSO IN TIME
says he has not been handed such a document. ("So far," a Bureau spokesman
says, "no formal decision concerning his case has been made.") Nor have
they answered his pleas to discuss the matter. "I've asked seven times
for a meeting with Film Bureau officials," he declares, "but with no success."
The censors seem to resemble the villagers in Devils, reluctant to speak,
or face, the truth. "The film shows that people must express their feelings
frankly and openly, instead of bottling them up inside while smiling and
nodding. This is a fault of most Orientals. If we wish to have genuine
peace, we must speak openly."
edition's table of contents
There's no use pretending that Devils is a sweet puppy of a movie crushed
under the wheels of the censors' tank. The film is both outraged and amused
at the carnage (several brutal deaths of the innocent and weak) the soldiers
wreak on civilians; it has a God's-eye view, a kind of humanist misanthropy,
of the disasters of war.
Yet the Film Bureau's view is rustic in its naivete. "The language used
in the film is offensive in many places," the report notes. (A frequent
epithet is "turtle-f---er.") "There is also a shot of a nude woman. In
general, the style of the film is vulgar." It also says Devils is too
nice to the Japanese and too critical of the Chinese. "The evaluation
basically accuses Jiang of intentionally vilifying the Chinese and beautifying
the Japanese invaders, of being a neo-fascist and national traitor," says
a Chinese producer. "That's a very serious accusation." It is a mirror
of charges from Japan's ultra-right groups, which see the film as a slur
on its military. These groups are reportedly trying to keep Devils from
being shown in Japan and threatening to harm the Japanese actors who appeared
The Film Bureau in Beijing is slated to be dismantled as the state bureaucracy
is streamlined; some film people believe that, by stoking this controversy,
the censors are trying to make themselves appear indispensible. "It seems
I am caught in a political power play," Jiang says. The officials are
also telling producers of a new project not to hire Jiang as a star. "They
may not have the guts to tell him, 'You're banned,'" says an industry
observer. "But they could put him on an implicit blacklist."
Jiang is not the only prominent filmmaker to be corraled by the censors.
Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou have seen many of their films cut severely
or banned from theatrical showings. Tian Zhuangzhuang was denounced so
fulsomely in 1993 for his poignant drama The Blue Kite that he has not
been able to make a film since. But Jiang is the auteur most likely to
shout out his grievances. He will not be the next Chinese filmmaker to
bite the dust. He's more likely to spit the dirt in his accusers' faces.
"I feel like Ma Dasan," Jiang says wryly. "The film has become real life.
But I hope I won't have as tragic an ending as his." That would be a shamefor
when the Kuomintang take over the village at the end of the war, they
make an example of Ma and cut his head off. That never happened to Duke
Reported by Jaime A. FlorCruz/Beijing
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