In 2000, Jiang Wen’s film Devil on the Doorstep was banned in China, after coming in second for the Cannes Grand Prix. The film depicts a situation in which a Chinese villager, Ma Dasan, is forced to watch over a Japanese prisoner and a Chinese interpreter. Unable to bring himself to kill them, Ma hides them in an old watchtower and starts taking care of them. In the end, the two prisoners are traded back to the Japanese Army in exchange for carts of grain, but a subsequent misunderstanding ends in a massacre.
Interestingly, China Digital Times published the verdict of the SARFT film censorship board on Devils on the Doorstep. Normally, censorship decisions are not made public, and their content is only revealed by reference in interviews with filmmakers. However, this document provides an insight into some of SARFT’s methods and priorities.
The most important part of the verdict relates to the portrayal of Chinese villagers and Japanese soldiers against the background of the Second World War, or, using the Chinese term, the War to Resist Japan. Throughout, SARFT takes the film to task for incorrect depictions of the nature of the Chinese people. An old grandfather should not be shown as being sympathetic to a young Chinese soldier, it is deemed incorrect that the villagers care for the Japanese soldier and the Chinese traitor (汉奸 hanjian), or that they indicate that they haven’t really suffered under the occupation. When the Japanese soldier imagines being attacked by the villagers, he imagines them as Samurai. However, SARFT feels that what he should feel most are “the armies resisting Japan, such as the Eighth Route Army or guerrilla forces”. Imagining villagers as samurai “uglifies the Chinese people”. In short, in this film, the “common Chinese people” do not show sufficient hatred towards the Japanese, do not sufficiently differentiate between foe and friend, and display ignorance and apathy. At the same time, according to SARFT, the film does not correctly display the cruelty of the Japanese army but, amongst others, shows a Japanese soldier giving sweets to children. Also, “Japanese army songs are played often, putting a spin on the Japanese imperialists flaunting their strength, which may gravely hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.”
A smaller issue comes at the end of the film, where a Guomindang general declares that only the Guomindang can legally accept the surrender of Japanese troops. Again, this does not fit in official CCP historiography and is therefore beyond the pale.
Lastly, there are a few issues of obscenity and language. A sex scene between Ma Dasan and his lover Yu’er is deemed to “bring about strong, harmful sensual stimulation to people.” A scene in which the villagers’ pack donkey gets aroused by a Japanese army donkey is described as vulgar and boring.
In the light of recent, island-related events, the focus on the manicheist separation between the heroic Chinese and the agressive Japanese invaders provides an interesting insight in the politics of division practiced by the censorship board. By insisting on one-dimensional representation of ethnicities, the board seems to deny the possibility to portray a human connection between the Chinese and the Japanese, as has been explored in many Western WW2 films, including Schindler’s List. Rather, the insistence of a politically correct vision of history reinforces Chinese exceptionalism and the dehumanisation of the Japanese, however horrifying some wartime acts might have been.
In terms of obscene content, again, a logic of dehumanisation takes place. By denying the sexuality of Ma Dasan and Yu’er, the board seems to require these characters to become larger than life superhumans. Perhaps the underlying purpose of this direction of censorship can be best explained by understanding the process of content review as an effort to direct the content of film towards the grand objectives of the CCP. In this view, film is not an open artistic expression to be judged on its own merits by audiences, but is a purposive tool to build awareness of the century of humiliation, the innate superiority of the Chinese people, and the grand destiny to which it is called. That being said, this document is now twelve years old, and more light would be shed on the evolution of this matter if more censorship decisions were made public. If anyone is aware of such documents, please contact us.
State Administration of Radio, Film and Television Film Examination Committee Examination Opinion concerning “Devils on the Doorstep”
The coproduced film “Devils on the Doorstep” that your company submitted has been examined by the Film Examination Committee. The Examination Committee believes that:
The script of this film has not been revised strictly according to the Film Bureau “Response concerning Project Establishment of the Coproduction ‘Devils on the Doorstep'” (DZ No.302), and has been filmed without authorization under the circumstances that no script has been submitted for filing, at the same time, lines and scenes have been added in many places without authorization, resulting in a film, that on the one hand, not only has not expressed the hatred and opposition of the common Chinese people against the invasion, against the great background of the War to Resist Japan (the sole person daring to scold and oppose the Japanese Army is a madman annoying the villagers), on the contrary, it prominently displays and concentratedly exaggerates their ignorance, apathy and servility, and on the other hand, has not only not fully revealed the Japanese imperialist and aggressive nature, but prominently plays up the rampant manner in which Japanese invaders flaunt their strength, leading to grave deviations in the basic concept of the film.
Filthy words appear repeatedly in the film, and Japanese soldiers often take the insult “Chinese pigs” into their mouths, furthermore, there are shots with naked female bodies, the overall style is vulgar and does not conform to the standards of the “Film Examination Regulations”.
The name of the film must be chosen again according to the repeated requirements of the Film Bureau.
The film must, after earnest revision according to the attachment, be resubmitted for examination.
Attachment: “Major Differences Between the Film “Devils on the Doorstep” and the Approved Script”
I, Unauthorized revised and added scenes, resulting in grave deviations in the basic concept of the film:
1, On pages 7 and 8 of the script, when the masses of villagers in the original literary script try the Japanese Soldier Hanaya and the Chinese traitor Dong Hancheng , they does not show fear, but excoriate them: “You want to make trouble, there are no sweet cakes for your to eat” and “We will beat all the yellow out of you”, etc. But the film shows that the villagers fear them from the start. And the lines of Grandfather in shot 240 were added: “I see you are also children”, displaying common Chinese people as stupid and ignorant, making no difference between foe and friend.
2, The film bureau has insisted on deleting the scene on giving the devils wheat flour and rice to eat in the literary script, but in the film, not only has this scene not been deleted, but it repeatedly plays up Ma Dasan’s lending rice to Erbozi, agreeing on repaying eight times the loan, and the villagers also excitedly wrapping dumplings for Japanese soldiers and Chinese traitors. It objectively expresses the times of extreme difficulties of life for the common Chinese people during wartime, but their active care for Japanese soldiers and Chinese traitors, gravely violates history.
3, Shots 1027; In comparison with the literary script, the film adds lines for Erbozi: “The Japanese have come to our village eight years ago, what happened in those eight years, have they dared to touch one hair of mine? I’m doing fine, walking level, wherever I go, they will look highly at me”. The Japanese invaders were burning, killing, pillaging and looting China for eight years, committing heinous crimes, however, the film says, through the mouth of the wife of Erbozi that the Japanese army was highly disciplined towards them, embellishing the Japanese invaders.
4, Shots 472 to 496, in comparison with the literary script, the film added a section in which the Japanese Soldier Hanaya thinks that Ma Dasan has brought the villagers and comes breaking through, and imagines Ma Dasan and the villagers with the appearance of Samurai. Against the great background of the War of Resistance, the most dreaded fear of the Japanese soldier Hanaya should be the armies resisting Japan, such as the Eighth Route Army or guerrilla forces, the scene in which Ma Dasan and the villagers are imagined as Japanese samurai is not only false, it also uglifies Chinese people.
5, Shots 877 to 893, shorts 918 to 931, shots 941 to 947, and shorts 954 to 959, in comparison with the literary script, the film has added the storyline that the villagers think Ma Dasan killed the devils, pay not attention to him, and even Yu’er avoids him, upsetting Ma Dasan’s nerve. It displays multitudinous common Chinese people who don’t have the necessary hatred against the Japanese army, don’t differentiate between foe and friend, are ignorant and apathetic.
6, Shots 1002 to 1069; in comparison with the literary script, the film has added a storyline where after the small child’s learning Japanese creates danger, a crowd of villagers gets angry at Ma Dasan, and compete one by one to let him kill himself, and put his head on the table; Yu’er sais to the villagers: “isn’t letting him kill people, also letting me harbouring sinister designs? Look at these two days, you haven’t paid any attention to him. If we don’t kill people, we are forced to kill people, if we have killed people, we are not given any attention, looking at Ma Dasan is the same as looking at the devil, no-one has died, and you clash with us and do this…” It displays that common Chinese people not only do not dare to resist the enemy, but also are full of servility towards and fear of the invaders, can only fight among themselves, and are mutually suspicious and jealous.
7, Page 34 of the script: In the original script, when One Stroke Liu talks about his skill in killling, he says he killed a palace eunuch having a clandestine affair, but in shots 1177 to 1199 if the film, it has changed to One Stroke Liu having killed “eight ministers from the side of Cixi” and “the master of the Hundred Days of Reform, Tan Sitong”, this not only endows it with new political content, but also plays up the pride in beheading skills, with the result that he fails in killing the Japanese soldiers, exclaims “all my life’s glory, destroyed in a moment”, and runs away despondently. For people, it is a metaphor that in the last century, Chinese people were only able to take the axe to their own people, and did not dare to resist foreign aggression.
8, On page 39 of the script, everyone is discussing to send the devils back, in the original script, it is described that when the Japanese army arrives in the village, they draw a circle by sprinkling white rice, encircling the commoners, and force them to eat the rice, those who are unable to eat more, have their heads restrained and rice pressed into their mouth, an when the Japanese captain talks, the commoners pay no attention to him. However, in shots 1763 to 1871 of the film, this scene has been changed into a get-together, and forcefully plays up that they drink wine and sing songs together, the villagers are eternally grateful, the Japanese army is as close as brothers with the villagers, and there are lines such as “Today, I am happy, not only because of these grain carts, but mainly because the Imperial Army has given us face”, etc., this is a major change to the concept of the script, and is utterly contrary to the theme.
9, On pages 47 to 40 of the script; in the scene of the massacre of the villagers, in the original script, there are descriptions of common people who finally come to there senses, rise up and revolt, such as Erbozi picking up a steel helmet and striking Japanese soldiers with it, and the mother of Erbozi who takes of her shoes to hit the devils, and shouts: “Don’t be stupid, pick up weapons and fight.” But in the films, in shots 1872 to 2073, the commoners don’t fight with the devils until they die, and when facing massacre, essentially wait helplessly for death, and let themselves be trampled.
11, The only person who dares to scold and resist Japan in this film is a lunatic who annoys the villagers.
12, In comparison with the literary script, a scene is added in which a Guomindang general convenes the commoners, he openly executes Chinese traitors, and when giving his speech to accept surrender, says: “Only the republican armies are the legal acceptors of surrendering Japanese troops.” He also has a Japanese person lend a hand to kill Ma Dasan. This utterly reverses factual acts, but receives the agreement of the surrounding commoners, it gravely distorts history, and has not achieved the effect of criticising and mocking the Guomindang.
13, In the film, there are two persons singing ditties, who appear three times in total, there is no description of this in the original literary script. In shot 1099, lines such as “The Imperial Army comes to our village, let’s jointly build a common flourishing circle in East Asia, the Imperial Army has come to help the needy and relieve the distressed” have also been added. This is typical of the imagery of ignorance, apathy and being slaves without a country.
14, The content of Crazy Old Seven’s words when cursing Ma Dasan and Yu’er and when cursing Japanese devils is similar, this is extremely inappropriate.
15, In many places in the film, the mouths of Japanese people are used to insult Chinese people for “Chinese dogs”, gravely harming the image of China.
II, In the reply to the script, revision opinions were put forward, but in the following places, these revisions have not been made in the film:
1, On page 2 of the script: after Nonomura finishes juggling, he puts away his pack of sweets into his bag, displaying the Japanese army’s teasing children. In shot 24 of the film, he not only gives sweets, but also repeatedly displays Chinese children in pursuit of Japanese soldiers, asking for sweets.
2, On page 2 of the script: the scene in which Ma Dasan and Yu’er gasp violently for breath on the bed and Yu’er is naked should already have been deleted in the original script. In shots 28 to 41 of the film, it has not only not been deleted, but lines have also been added: “Let me look”, “Look at what, faster, don’t have a rest”. The effect of the length, imagery and sounds of this bed scene are strong, and bring about strong, harmful sensual stimulation to people.
3, On page 40 of the script: When the donkey is in heat, in the original literary script, it was changed into the donkey running into the devils’ granary. In shorts 1590 to 1606 of the film, it has not been revised. This storyline has a vulgar style and is boring.
4. In the original literary script, the absolute majority of dirty works should have been deleted, but in the film, they are ubiquitous, and many characters use dirty words.
5, In the film, Japanese army songs are played often, putting a spin on the Japanese imperialists flaunting their strength, which may gravely hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.