Once upon a time in Japanese-occupied China…
Available online under Guizi lai le. Approximately 138 minutes.
China in early 1945 is still under the control of Japan. The blockhouse in the village of Rack-Armor Terrace is being occupied by a band of Japanese Navy reservists. A band as in a music band. Pretty much every morning, they march past the village to greet a gunboat while the band plays the same military song, and not particularly well. The captain plays with the kids and hands out candy, while casually bullying a local man named Er Bozi about water.
One night, Ma Dasan and his girlfriend Yu’er are…interrupted by a knock on the door. Dasan opens the door to find a gun in his face. The man orders him to close his eyes. The gunman, who refers to himself as “Wo” or Me, leaves two sacks in Dasan’s house, saying that he will pick them up on Lunar New Year. It turns out that there are two men in the sacks. Me tells Dasan to interrogate the men while they are in his care. If they die or get discovered by the Japanese, Me will kill Dasan.
The next day, Dasan recounts the events to Yu’er’s family…well, the family of her dead husband. He embellishes a few things, such as saying that Me threatened to kill everyone in the village after Bozi suggests taking the men to the Japanese. So they decide to interrogate the two men. One of them is a Chinese man named Hanchen Dong. The other is a Japanese man named Kosaburo Hanaya. Already injured, Kosaburo tries to provoke the villagers into killing him. Dong, not willing to be included in this honorable death, deliberately mistranslates almost everything that Kosaburo says to the villagers.
While Dong and Kosaburo are held captive in the house, the Japanese soldiers march by. Kosaburo, who had previously been trying to bash his head against a wooden post, calls out to the captain. The household falls into chaos and panic until Dasan figures out that the Japanese cannot hear them over the gunboat and the music. So, it is back to Kosaburo trying to provoke the Chinese into killing him and Dong begging them to let him go.
Eventually, Lunar New Year night arrives. Ma and Bozi wait for the return of the man known as Me. Me never comes…so now what?
This movie ran into some problems with the Chinese government when it was first released. While I do not agree with trying to muzzle a movie like this, I can see why it caused some issues. For instance, it is a dark comedy instead of a reverential drama. This is neither a story about brave Chinese warriors standing up to the Japanese menace nor a story of ordinary Chinese people nobly enduring Japanese oppression. The Chinese soldiers are barely in the story, and those that are in the story are completely disconnected with the lives of the main characters except to pose as much of a threat as the occupying Japanese forces. The villagers, for their part, are selfish and bickering. Ma Dasan himself is kind of cowardly and sneaky; breaking down in tears when scolded on at least one occasion. The notion of collaboration with the enemy is denounced in theory, but things get murky when immediate practical concerns are involved. The Japanese are the bad guys, yes, but there is some nuance and range given to the characters. War movies sometimes ask what ordinary people will do in the face of adversity; the answer that this movie gives is mixed at best. Not exactly good propaganda material, but a good movie.
One thing that I love about this movie is just how much the characters need to work to prevent the utter chaos from disrupting the oppressive order of day-to-day life. People have been so used to order that they do anything to maintain at least the semblance of it, even when doing so seems impossible or pointless. Dong tries desperately to lie his way out of Kosaburo’s attempts to die. Whenever it seems that the Japanese may catch on, the family falls into a mad scramble that simultaneously leads to moments of understandable stupidity and twisted brilliance. The family hierarchy, already compromised by Yu’er having an affair with Dasan and the Japanese occupation, is pretty much at its breaking point thanks to the arrival of the two prisoners. The family elder manages to retain some semblance of authority, but what it means in the real world situation is unclear. A major theme of the story is that people are not always what they say they are, or even what they believe themselves to be. This mix of chaos and order allows for the story to go in certain unexpected directions, while still coming across as coherent.
If you want to watch a movie about a disparate group of people coming together to fight a great evil, then this is not that movie. If you want to watch a movie about a disparate group of badasses act like badasses, then this is not that movie. If you want to watch how people might actually act in the face of evil, then there is this movie. And it is awesome.
WTF ASIA 112: The Handmaiden (South Korea: 2016, approx. 145 minutes)
WTF ASIA 113: The Legend of Bhagat Singh (India: 2002, approx. 150-156 minutes)