Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Devils on the Doorstep

For as great as the second half of Devils on the Doorstep is, there is a certain beautiful simplicity to the film’s first half that I initially overlooked. Initially the crisis is simple: if the villagers get rid of the prisoners they will be killed and if they keep the prisoners they face the constant threat of being killed, all through no fault of their own. Once the initial deadline passes, though, their initial complicity leaves them indefinitely saddled with the prisoners. It is at this point where the initial simplicity of the premise takes on its novel dimension: as the risk of punishment for getting rid of the prisoners diminishes, their culpability for stashing them rises in equal measure with murder, perpetual captivity, or fleeing being their only options. Whether intentional or not, these are the same conditions which haunt the Japanese army, to a large degree. The two groups begin to drift apart at this point of comparison, largely due to the film’s depiction rather than any inherent difference between the two. After all, the Japanese army is made up of villagers no different from those in the Chinese village. Thus, when the Chinese villagers are unable to kill it has more to do with their temperaments than their situations. A Japanese soldier refusing to kill would face immediate but perhaps lesser consequences while the Chinese are able to refuse, but with the specter of certain death always hanging over them. With these consequences in mind, the film becomes rather repetitive toward the end of its first half as the villagers repeat the same debate about how to deal with the prisoners. This repetition may be seen by some as a ‘flaw’, but I think it is an immense strength. The villagers are bound by their own goodness in perpetual limbo. What is inert and repetitive in the narrative serves to emphasize the inescapability of the problem, to allow the viewer no exit from the villagers’ troubles. Forward narrative momentum in this section would free the viewer from the difficulties of the problem, just as the initial deadline was to have freed the villagers. This sort of narrative limbo is an essential element of existential fiction, and the existential elements resound even more strongly due to the villagers being thrown into their situations without any other reasonable choice. Through the villagers’ own reticence to kill another they become trapped in an absurd literary parable and without adding anything more absurd than war to the equation they are propelled into a piece of existential fiction. To interpret the film in this way, the discovery of a solution is, as it turns out in the film, merely a costly delusion, an attempt to profess their innocence to a group only too willing to condemn them. It is Camus’ absurd conundrum come to life. In fact the villagers’ best hope was to simply endure their state of perpetual limbo, but it’s not so easy to resign one’s self to a Sisyphean struggle.

Even though their choice ends up being faulty, there is much to learn from the way the villagers fail so spectacularly. Their faith in the Japanese to both honor the deal they have made and forget their complicity is extremely naïve. The Japanese retaliation is both expected and excessive, given that there is an implication that the commander knows that the war is over but kills the villagers anyway. However, for as terrible as the Japanese actions are that are shown at this point, there is nothing to suggest a uniquely anti-Japanese sentiment in these moments, even considering the convenience of it occurring on the war’s final days. Indeed, the film has by this point already shown the closeness of the captured Japanese soldier, a villager himself, to the Chinese villagers. He initially exhibited the results of his conditioning to despise the Chinese - this is not fiction and was part of the Japanese war strategy, and their strategies were reprehensible without question. However, that Japanese men acted reprehensibly does not necessarily mean that the individuals themselves are portrayed in a negative light, as the transformation of the captive Japanese soldier shows. He knows the commander from his own village, so what is shown to be equal at root between the Chinese villagers and the captive Japanese soldier extends to this commander, who will go on to commit war crimes, which then circles back to the Chinese protagonist who does the same. The fact is that there is a sociological element, rather than merely social or racial element, which must be factored into any interpretations of these acts. The film’s protagonist ends the film on a murderous rampage, one which is understandable but also reprehensible nonetheless. His act of desperation is as senseless as the Japanese commander’s orders, as it solves nothing, but the greater point that should be gleaned is the alteration of character that extreme circumstances and conditioning can impose on an otherwise peaceable man. As such, any complaints about the harsh depictions of the Japanese soldiers should be weighed against the harsh realities of the Japanese atrocities in the war and the reasons why large numbers of ordinary men were able to carry out such brutal actions. Similarly, any complaints about how the Chinese villagers and Japanese soldiers find similarities once joined in a peaceful limbo is simply dismissive of the similarity of humans regardless of race. In essence, the film’s first half manages to show two different peoples coming together who were divided both by the inevitable consequences of war and the particularly nasty methods needlessly employed, and the second half displays how it can all fall apart if any of the earlier malicious elements remain. Rather than exacerbating racial stereotypes the film works to delineate between the universal human elements and the particular social elements at play, and at the level of social commentary the film deservedly depicts the effects of certain social elements in a negative light as they prevent both the villagers and the soldiers from living honorably, or living at all. Of course, attempting to extract some point of view of the author from any film is rather meaningless. It really just amounts to a scavenger hunt. I think it is much more useful to simply appreciate those elements of the film which work on some level, be it on the level of highlighting certain elements of the human psyche or raising questions about human behavior or illustrating the consequences of actions. I place much more emphasis on the nuance of the depiction than the balance between opposing elements. After all, a film is a particular viewpoint, and a fictional one, so any divergences from reality can function as a counterpoint and any similarities to reality can function as a reflection of it and using them against these functions is just misappropriation. After all, the only requirement to turn a false reflection into a parody is a shift in perspective, as the viewer holds all the power. However, it just so happens that Devils on the Doorstep encompasses both the universal human side and the greater social ills – and yet there are still detractors. You can’t win ‘em all.

Devils on the Doorstep is in many ways similar to Dogtooth, a film that has left many people absolutely befuddled, in both structure and tone. Both films focus on disconcerting subjects and adopt an embellished tone which allows for a certain amount of comedic distance to develop. There is an underlying element of seriousness, but the environments are relatively sterile and the outside forces don’t seem dangerous. In Devils on the Doorstep two soldiers approach the house where the prisoners are stashed, but they are as harmless and oblivious as could be and the worst that happens is the death of a small animal. There is a parallel to Dogtooth here. And so for half of each film there are a number of scrapes with violence, none resulting in anything too serious, until around the midway points when the violence is ratcheted up, serious recourse is taken, and the jovial tones of both films become far more strained by the violent surges. In Devils on the Doorstep they go out of their town to seek assistance, and in Dogtooth it is the presence of outside influence which brings about a violent reaction. In fact, the situation is potentially much worse in Devils on the Doorstep, although they are unsuccessful and move on to a larger trouble. The failure of a double murder only sets up a larger display of violence, though, which in turn begets a retaliation and punishment. By the ends of both films the protagonists engage in visceral acts of violence which lead to ambivalent finales. Looking at the pair, they both establish disturbing undercurrents which are offset by an exaggerated tone that is subverted by the end of the film through violence, creating a stark tension between the farcical nature of the film’s beginning and its tragic end. This is a fairly common dramatic structure, but it is also distinct from a tragicomedy that never embellishes and also never entirely subverts the initially established tone. Thus, I think it is important to understand the differences between a black comic farce such as Devils on the Doorstep and a tragicomedy. For one, a tragic farce has elements of farce which allow for laughter, often out of morbid humor or a marginalization of the serious elements of a situation. By the end, the laughs of the beginning are a reflection of naivety, as it is always apparent throughout that what does happen could have happened all along. If the film simply turned from purely farcical to purely tragic then I don’t even know what the feat would accomplish, as it is merely a juxtaposition of disparate elements rather than a swelling of always present undercurrents. By providing the initial comic distance I think a black comic farce stays away from the overwhelming sadness of a pure tragedy, but the absence of any comic counterbalance by the end does not allow for the typical ambivalence and instead spirals into shock. This is what I feel at the end of both Devils on the Doorstep and Dogtooth, at any rate. To be laughing at the end of either seems antithetical to the point, as the point of both films seems to be to illustrate the dangerous potential of the undercurrents which, while at times dormant, are always threatening. Where a strict black comedy functions to raise questions about issues with no easy answer, a black comic farce functions to shake the audience from their passive stupor and acknowledge the dangers of dormant undercurrents. It is not satire or black comedy, because its target is unambiguously dangerous, but it functions to maintain awareness of otherwise insidious elements. It is also not pure tragedy in that the issues highlighted are not personal flaws but, rather, societal measures which require awareness rather than personal correction. In both films I think the central element whose awareness is raised is the perpetuating nature of violence – its effects reverberate back upward often as strongly as it pushes downward. Essentially: violence is a solution which always creates a new problem. To me, they both make their points clearly through their form, but some people seem incapable of turning their initial shock into any semblance of a meaningful reaction. If they would think about the content’s structural arrangement I think the answer would reveal itself naturally.

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