Devils' Advocate

  • Share
  • Read Later

Chinese actor-director Jiang Wen defends his Cannes-bound movie from the censor's knife


A TIME Daily Special: Richard Corliss reports from the final day at the Cannes Film Festival (, Tuesday May 23, 2000) Even his producer thinks Jiang Wen's second feature is too much. According to Dong Ping, Devils on the Doorstep (Guizi Lai Le), a $4 million World War II drama that currently clocks in at 2 hrs. 40 mins., needs to be chopped by nearly a third to appeal to audiences. When a director first produces a film, everything looks good, says Dong diplomatically. Later, they see the points that need to be changed.

Everybody, it seems, wants a piece of Jiang's latest work--on the cutting room floor. Beijing has officially forbidden Jiang from showing his movie without major changes. Both film and director are in Cannes this week for the movie's world premiere. Devils is one of six Asian works among 23 competing for the prestigious Golden Palm award at the French festival. China has demanded that organizers pull the flick from competition. (Cannes officials have yet to respond to Beijing's complaint.) Jiang won't hear of it. They are asking me to make changes I can't accept, says the 37-year-old actor and director who has become one of the leading lights of Chinese cinema. It's like asking me to make a man into a woman. If I change it as they want me to change it, then I would have to film it again.

Jiang is no stranger to Beijing's ways. His directorial debut--In the Heat of the Sun, a bold adaptation of a Wang Shuo novel about Beijing teenagers during the Cultural Revolution--was held up by censors for two months at the script stage, then cut before its international premiere at the 1994 Venice Film Festival, where it was warmly received and won its young star, Xia Yu, the Best Actor award. The film, which Time named as one of the year's 10 best, was then held up for a year and cut again before being shown in China. Authorities had even planted a spy on the set during filming--a ploy that Jiang gently mocked by casting the man as a North Korean diplomat.

Devils would seem far less likely to court controversy. Set in a village in northern Hebei province during the last winter of World War II, the film traces the growing and ironic amity between Chinese villagers and two prisoners-of-war who have mysteriously been deposited into their care. One, a wounded Japanese soldier (Teriyuki Kagawa), deliberately insults the locals in hopes of provoking them into granting him an honorable death. But the other, his Chinese translator (Dong Hanchen), tranforms the soldier's curses into praise for their captors. The charmed villagers treat the pair well until their food begins to run out, at which point they decide to swap the men for two carts of grain at a nearby Japanese garrison.

There is still a worry that the film, a joint mainland-Hong Kong production, might strain ties with Japan. Nearly every week mainland newspapers find some excuse to castigate Tokyo for the atrocities its troops committed in China during World War II. Some people think using the word 'devil' is too strong, says Jiang. I don't know what they're afraid of. On the set, at least, the Japanese actors seemed to appreciate the film's message. Actor Chen Qiang, 82, shared his wartime memories with the two Japanese cast in lead roles, Kagawa and Kenya Sawada. I told them about the atrocities I had seen, he says. They didn't know this history. After I told them, they understood.

Devils turned out to be a devil to film. According to Jiang, the five-month shoot, completed only a few weeks ago, used up Kodak's entire supply of black-and-white film in China--150,000 m of it. Jiang wanted to shoot at a lakeside location where a segment of the Great Wall is crumbling into the water. He found such a place at a reservoir outside his hometown of Tangshan, but his crew still had to blast off the top of a nearby hill and move two villages before he could begin filming. A road had to be constructed to bring in supplies and equipment from as far as 800 km away. Merely building the set took four months. After all that, Jiang had to find an actor with a Tangshan accent to play the role of Ma Dasan, the peasant who takes in the two prisoners. In the end he cast himself.

Though he is now directing, Jiang has never put his acting career behind him. Since graduating from the presitigious Central Academy of Drama in 1984, he has been one of China's most popular and highest paid actors. His films include his trademark rags-to-riches lead in Zhang Yimou's Red Sorghum. In 1991 he played the lead in the hit Chinese television series Beijingers in New York. Elderly actors such as Chen Qiang like his thinking. I wanted to work with a young director, says Chen. He has new thoughts. He's not conservative.

With that kind of reputation, Jiang is understandably peeved that the Film Bureau would try to sabotage his Cannes debut. We always told them we wanted to participate in Cannes, he says. We always said we would go. Moreover, the censors' argument keeps shifting. Initially they had him change the script in 10 places. Jiang says authorities later told him they had received anonymous letters and phone calls criticizing Devils for being too sympathetic to the Japanese soldiers.

Jiang refuses to cut. I heard they might prevent me from filming for several years, that they won't let me be a director, he says. But it's useless to be afraid. He may, however, run: if Beijing doesn't manage to take the camera (or his passport) away from him, he says, he could well make his next movie in Hollywood. Of course, given the big studios' fondness for shorter, more marketable films, Jiang's devil-may-care approach may be as unwelcome in commercial-minded Tinseltown as it is in Beijing.

Reported by Mia Turner/Beijing