1949 2011

Jiang Wen: protagonists in Chinese war films

More Jiang Wen! I’m currently reading Chinese and Japanese Films on the Second World War edited by King-fai Tam, Timothy Y. Tsu, and Sandra Wilson, a collection that includes two essays analyzing Jiang Wen’s Devils on the Doorstep and one essay devoted to Donnie Yen’s Ip Man. (I’ll post on all of these!)

I’ve just finished the essay “A genealogy of anti-Japanese protagonists in Chinese war films, 1949-2011″ by Timothy Y. Tsu. Tsu actually considers two roles portrayed by Jiang Wen, namely the memorable “my grandpa” in 1987′s Red Sorghum and Ma Dasan in 2000′s subversive Devils on the Doorstep, which JW also directed, produced, and co-wrote. (Aside: Although it’s very difficult for me to choose, I think DotD may be my very favorite of the films JW has directed.) I thought the contrast here is interesting.

Tsu identifies Red Sorghum’s “my grandpa” as “the non-ideological but patriotic peasant”:

Internationally acclaimed, Red Sorghum pioneered the transformation of the socialist resistance hero into a non-ideological character. ‘My grandpa’, the unnamed hero, is not a communist but an uneducated, bare-chested palanquin carrier… his patriotism is instinctive. Indeed, precisely because the movie strips him of ideology, it can concentrate on celebrating his rage at the Japanese as a primal form of patriotism. As embodied by ‘my grandpa’, this patriotic instinct is presented as an authentic constituent of ‘Chinese-ness’, timeless, visceral, and unsullied by ideology. 

Here is Tsu’s perspective on Devils on the Doorstep and Ma Dasan, whom he calls “the scheming peasant”:

Winner of the Grand Prize at Cannes in 2000, Devils on the Doorstep claims the distinction not only of having been released in Japan, a feat seldom achieved by Chinese movies about the war, but also of receiving enthusiastic reviews from mainstream Japanese media as well as from Western critics. Widely praised as an ‘anti-war film’, it is notable for its sympathy for both the victims and the aggressors in war, and its condemnation of war as dehumanizing and incomprehensible for all involved. In addition to its universal anti-war message, the movie also presents a vigorous challenge to the socialist anti-Japanese protagonist, to the extent that it could not formally be released in China….

With its barren rural landscape, austere farmhouses, and simple peasants, Devils on the Doorstep replicates the mood of good old socialist anti-Japanese movies, only to undermine that association by presenting a hero who is no hero at all by the conventions of socialist cinema. Although their poor peasant pedigree is beyond dispute, Ma and his neighbors depart from the stereotype in that they are more interested in self-preservation than resisting foreign aggression…. When Ma finally attacks the enemy, the war is already over. Most strikingly, Ma dies a common criminal, condemned by a Chinese officer. The war is thus an absurdity for Ma: it robs him of everything worthwhile and brings no justice in the end.

Next up, the essay “The Sino-Japanese War in Ip Man”!