Written by Wen Jiang, Haiying Li, Xing Liu, Jianquan Shi & Ping Shu, based on a story by Wen Jiang & Ping Shu, which was in turn based on a novella by Fengwei You
Directed by Wen Jiang
Starring Wen Jiang, Teruyuki Kagawa, Ding Yuan, Hongbo Jiang, Zhijun Cong
- Introduction by Steven Soderbergh
Released by: Home Vision.
Rating: NR; not for children or the extremely squeamish.
My Advice: Just make sure you watch it.
It’s World War II, and portions of China have been occupied by the Japanese. In the village of Rack-Armor Terrace, there’s a Japanese blockhouse, and the Chinese peasants there try to keep themselves to themselves and stay out of trouble so they can just go on with their lives, even in the midst of the occupation. That all changes one night, when a stranger knocks on the door of Dasan Ma’s (Jiang) domicile and puts a gun to poor San’s head. The demands are laid out pretty clearly: San is responsible for two prisoners of war…a Japanese soldier and a Chinese collaborator. Either San takes care of them and interrogates them, keeping them until New Year’s when this stranger can return, or…bad things.
Strong. This movie is strong. It’s easy to see why it impressed Soderbergh, whose intro consists of basically talking about serving with Jiang on a jury at the Cannes Film Festival and his impressions of the man. Every shot is created with an eye towards artistry. I don’t know what sort of budget this film had–an item it would have been nice to hear about in some special features, actually–but I’ve seen huge Hollywood artsy flicks not have as many cutaways and framing shots. Jiang knows how to build tension better than probably ninety percent of the directors out there right now. And he knows how to balance humor and horror. Because there’s a lot of funny shit in this movie. And a lot of profanity. I had no idea that the curse du jour back then was “turtle fucker.” Learn something new everyday.
But no, seriously, there’s lots of funny bits in here. And lots of just mind-churning oh-Christ-no moments. And they co-exist readily without conflict. Jiang is just as good an actor as he is a director, as he tries his best to accept his fate–that he’s being shat on by the gods, my words not his. He basically stands out all the way around. Also of note is Kagawa, who plays the Japanese captive hell bent on killing himself and taking as many…um…turtle fuckers with him as he possibly can.
The film is not without its issues, mind you. There’s a section involving a trip to the big city in search of an assassin that just seems like an odd, unnecessary sidebar, and the end leaves some important questions unanswered. But those are small nits compared to the overall impact of the flick.
The word from Soderbergh, and I’ve read this elsewhere, is that Jiang was banned from directing after this movie came out. Reportedly, the Chinese government wasn’t too happy with the film. This is perplexing on multiple levels, but a damn shame no matter how you slice it. There is hope, however, that he will be back behind the camera soon. Because we need somebody who can create films like this. Its message is extremely clear, and very, very tragic. And as the film rolls towards its conclusion, it just becomes more intense until the very end pretty much punches you in the throat. If this is his first film, I can’t wait to see his others.