It's a Chinese film that's well over two hours long and shot in black-and-white, set during the Japanese occupation in 1945 and called Devils on the Doorstep. That probably makes it sound gruelling, but it's not. It's worth a look. It got banned in China, won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival and contains laughs.
First, some history. I'm sure you know all this, but it's impossible to discuss this subject matter unless we know we're all on the same page. The earliest start date for World War Two isn't 1941 or 1939, but instead 1937 if you regard it as starting with the Second Sino-Japanese War. They'd actually been fighting ever since Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931, but 1937 is when "incidents" turned into all-out war. Anyway, Japan's atrocities during World War Two are notorious and still denied today, with enough shit-stirring over the Rape of Nanking that ordinary Japanese people are in doubt about whether it really happened, despite the fact that the evidence was judged by an international war crimes tribunal. Of course the Chinese will never, ever forget.
There's a line in this film... "Who of our 400 million compatriots doesn't hate the Japanese?" There's still some truth in that today.
That much I knew, but I'd never seen a film actually set during the occupation. What's interesting about this is that we all know the horror stories from the Japanese prisoner of war camps, but you couldn't run a country on that basis for eight years. There would be no one left. Thus we see what day-to-day life was like, with Japanese soldiers giving Chinese children sweets even as they bully their parents. They'd had never had any respect for the Chinese. During their earlier wars with Russia and China, they'd beheaded and executed Chinese civilians after capturing their cities, but treated the Russians well.
Anyway, the film begins with Wen Jiang having sex with his late brother's widow. This is the last fun he'll have in a while. Someone knocks at the door, whereupon he finds a gun in his face and an unknown man telling him to interrogate two prisoners. He'll be back for them later. If they're not waiting when he returns, there will be trouble. This unknown person then disappears, leaving Wen Jiang with two sacks that can speak Japanese. This is bad. There will be much discussion about it. If they kill their prisoners, they'll probably be killed by the person who wanted them guarded. However if they feed them and keep them safe, you don't want to think about the consequences should anyone find out. Furthermore, on top of that, there appears to be a cultural taboo against killing, so if Wen Jiang did decide to do away with his unwanted guests, his brother's widow would never speak to him again and their unborn child would be cursed.
What got the film banned in China, I suspect, is that it's not portraying its Chinese peasants as single-minded resistance machines. On the contrary, these guys are as conflicted and squabbling as anyone would be under those circumstances. They can be goofy. They pick up one ludicrous old tosser at one point who's got some impressive kung-fu, but still isn't destined to stay in the movie for long.
As for its take on the Japanese soldiers, it seems pretty fair to me. I've dug up some clueless whinging (from Britain) that gets all precious about the Japan-bashing, but the film was well received in Japan and all the major newspapers gave it positive reviews. Some Japanese commentators got sniffy, of course. However when the Japanese actors had had reservations about this depiction of Japanese war crimes, Wen Jiang (also director and producer as well as actor) spent two weeks discussing the issues with them and showing them war documentaries, including Japanese ones. They did the movie. Anyway, the collective Japanese psychology we see here is psychotic, bigoted and possessed of a demented legalistic honour. They're not just evil. They're capable of being nice, although these were the movie's scariest scenes for me because I knew that at any moment they could start cutting off heads at a moment's notice.
Incidentally much of the film's (black, dry) comedy also comes from the fact that one of the two Japanese-speaking prisoners is actually Chinese. He's an interpreter. All captor-captive communication has to go through him, which gives rise to some selective translation.
It's a long film, but not because it's that slow. They follow their story further than I'd expected. We go right through to the aftermath of the (implausibly timed) Japanese surrender, in which we see the boot on the other foot and the triumphant Allied and Chinese forces being murderous dicks too. This film isn't propaganda. It's about people just being people when things are as ugly as they can possibly be, really, although in the case of the Japanese soldiers that's been filtered through fierce cultural brainwashing and some deluded ideas of honour.
The film looks great. They shot it in black and white as a homage to war movies, but the cinematography is unmistakably modern... and gorgeous.
It's based on a novel, although loosely. Also the Cannes cut was nearly three hours long, incidentally, although that had simply been because Wen Jiang hadn't time to edit it more thoroughly. Despite its title, it's also not an anti-Japanese war film, although China's made plenty of those too if you're looking for them. You'd probably also have to call it brave, given that Wen Jiang made the film under a Communist regime that clearly didn't like it and this had consequences for his career. The authorities didn't stop him acting, but he didn't direct another film until 2007.
Did I think it was a masterpiece? No. It's sometimes a bit slow and it doesn't have 139 minutes' worth of plot, although it's an impressive achievement and the last hour or so packs in a lot. I found it fascinating to watch, but its comedic edge means that it doesn't always have the tension as it might have had. Don't get me wrong, mind you. It's not a Marx Brothers movie or anything. It can be scary and the underlying story and themes are as serious as you can get, but they're being delivered with occasional laughs and a sense of the ridiculous during grand ceremonial moments. Oh, and if nothing else, I loved the differences between its Chinese and Japanese cultural perspectives.
"You've got your guns out. If that's not fear, what is?"