The movie I’m reviewing this week is a Chinese espionage thriller The
Message, a huge box-office hit in the past National Day holiday.

Devils on the Doorstep is set in a small dusty Northern China village
during Japanese occupation, at the end of WWII. The director is Jiang
Wen, who is banned from directing any movies for seven years (till 2007)
by the Chinese government, because he took this film to Cannes
voluntarily without obtaining the “proper” blessing from the authority.
Regardless, it won Grand Jury Prize from Cannes in 2000.

About two weeks ago, a serious tracfic accident was happened in the city
of Hangzhou, it is said that a rich young kid killed a man who has just
graduated from a famous university and is working hard for his future
with his own labor while racing in a crowd street with his mother’s
sports car. I’m not giving any remarks on that accident in this essay
though. The accident, in which both the casulty and the suspect were on
their way to a movie called Nanjing – City of Life and Death, has
actually offered a clue of the popularity of that movie among China.

During the Sino-Japanese War of the early 1940s, a streak of
assassinations are successfully conducted against officials of a puppet
government set up by the Japanese. As a result, a Japanese spy chief
puts five suspects working with the government’s confidential department
into an isolated fort for questioning and torture.

Both M and V have seen it and both of them have urged me to see it, and
told me it was dark but also humorous. Then again, it was not really
dark humor. At the end of August, I finally saw it at M’s place. When
the final credit started rolling, I was still emotionally trapped in the
ending’s “dark humor”, M remarked sullenly, “The tragedy of China.”

It is long before I went to the cinema that I know there must be
something special and different in this movie, and the movie has proved
my assumption. Quite a number of opinions though I possess on the movie,
I choose four of them to persent here.

While undertaking the close and cruel interrogation, the real
undercover, referred as “the Phantom”, is trying to send out a key
message to stop the outside group members from moving into the traps.

That sentence pulled me out of the contemplating mood right away, “Why
China?” I was puzzled. “If it is anyone’s tragedy, it is the tragedy of
human race. It is good versus evil, and the innocence versus the
’sophisticated’ calculating mind. It is not just China versus Japan. It
is universal. And that is what made this movie such a masterpiece. Or it
could be struggle between the bright and the dark sides within each and
every one of us… but China?”

As I was expecting, the movie was trying to focus on humanism, mostly
from a Japanese solider’s view though. I can see that the director was
intending to describe more about the feelings and living conditions of
people in that war rather than to describe the war itself, a tremendous
improment it is though, still not enough from my point of view. Great
movies like Lifetimes or Life is Beautiful or Farewell, My Concubine
focus on specific charactor’s real life, they don’t tell you that this
is the year xxxx when some sort of political events was happening, they
focus on one specific charactor or one small group of specific
charactors, and through telling stories of that one specific charactor,
the director demonstrate the idea that he or she wants to share. While
in the movie Nanjing – City of Life and Death, we can’t see a clear
clue, we can’t even figure out who is the main charactor, who the
director wants to focus on. There are too many faces on the scene, like
the Japanese solider who self-questioned, or the other Japanese solider
who shared no sympathy, or the tough Chinese solider who was resisting
at first but died out after about thirty minutes, or the other two
Chinese soliders including a kid who stayed alive till the end, or the
translator who tried hard to protect his family, or the famous German
Labe…… It seems that the director was trying to persent all the
information that he wants to share, but he forgot the fact that the more
charactors you include, the less you can focus on the specific one, thus
you can’t tell a whole story.

To put it simply, the whole story is a process of elimination and mutual
suspicion. So if you happen to be a fan of murder mystery games, The
Message will be the film for you. At the same time your level of
enjoyment may also be given a lift as the story is presented with spooky
set designs, powerful acting and varied camera-work.

What it really reminded me of, actually, was a story I’ve read in Magus,
where an old man recalling his dark secret during WWII, when he was the
head of a village in southern Europe, under occupation of the Nazis. One
day, some Nazis came to their village and they gave him, the head of the
village, a choice. He could pick one of his fellow villagers and shot
him or her himself, or the Nazis will shoot the entire village including
him. He was hunted by that choice and his ultimate decision ever

The movie did a great job in attracting people sympathize, but in a
inferior way. Too much engery was consumed on the painful scenes, when
most of the times they are unnecessary. Audience have the feeling that
the director was telling them:”Look, this is what they did at that time,
pretty shocking, huh?” That’s not how movie works. The director was
decribing the painful scenes in the aim of decribing them. Also, as
there were so many raping and killing pictures, I intensively possess
the perspective that the movie should be rated “adult only”. Too bad
there are no movie-rating thing in China. I hope no kids will see these

An audience could only come across a flaw-free suspense story once in a
blue moon. With some arguable plots knitted up, The Message is no
exception. But these small loopholes in the intricate storyline can just
be skipped unless you can drive a plane through them. If the director
had elaborated everything and plugged up the unapparent leaks, he might
had disturbed the movie’s steady pace or broken its compact structure.
Or at least movie goers may have lost something to talk about after

Then there was the story of Sophie’s Choice.

While kind of missing the point when I finished the movie, I doubt that
if the director himself is clear about his own point. As I have already
argued above, too many charactors’ presence made the movie not being
able to focus, thus the main point is kind of messed up. I saw humanism
in the first half of the movie, then the translator’s words “my wife is
pregnant again” make it back to narrow nationalism. I saw numb people
with no expression on their face, I thought the director was trying to
decribe people’s helpless, and then the same group of people started to
shout “China will never die”. And I can’t see the point. Maybe there are
some symbols that SHOULD always be included in a Chinese movie in which
the second world war was pictured, and the director don’t have the
courage or wisdom to get rid of them, meaningless though.

But I also believe the movie could have grown to be an even more
engrossing one. Simply because the suspense building is blocked quite
early, I can already tell who “the Phantom” by the middle of the film.

And a line I remembered from the movie The Green Mile, “Devil uses the
goodness in you to kill…”

Also, I want to talk about the Chinese common people appeared in the
movie. While I was watching the first thirty minutes of the movie, I
possessed a question which bothered me a lot: why those Chinese,
including soliders and civilians, have no facial expression? The
director described the Japanese soliders’ fearness, tiredness,
excitement, guilt, exultation. But none of the Chinese were appeared to
have feelings, and I can’t figure out why. The face on the civilian who
was going to be buried alive seemed like he is saying:”hey, I’m not very
comfortable while you are burying me.” No fear or anger or other
expressions were feeled. This failure caused bad effects to audience.
When I saw the scene in which one single Japanese solider shouted to
five hundreds of Chinese captives “turn right”, the first idea came into
my mind was that: are these Chinese soliders going to turn right in the
exact same pace like they used to in their own army? I feel a little bit
guity for thinking in this way though, I think I should not be blamed.
It is the director who demonstrated these Chinese soliders as having no
feelings that should be blamed! Also, in the last of the movie, when the
Japanese solider who did a lot of self-questioning killed himself, the
two Chinese captives smiled, they ran forward with flowers in their
hands, and I don’t see why. Is the director trying to say that if
Japanese people self-question themself one day, then we will have our
happy life finally? So we should rely on Japanese for our own life?

The Message is one of the only few domestic movies I would take pride in
this year, the major reason being that it suggests Chinese movie makers
have abandoned the traditional ideas when setting stories in that dark
part of the Chinese history and strike a balance between takings at the
box office and patriotic education.

Evil certainly didn’t seem to be partial to China. But M had a point,
too. It was the national character of China as a country to make
Japanese occupation possible. Their satiable nature and middle-road
philosophy taught over the thousands of years, made the mass of China
not a very ambitious or aggressive bunch, while their tiny neighbor on
an island always has a much grander scheme in mind.

But anyway, Nanjing – City of Life and Death is a good movie, I will not
regret for buying those tickets.

Such a refreshing experience is brought by its director and screenwriter
Chen Guofu, a strange name to many viewers, including myself. So I
googled his biography and couldn’t help giggling when I read that he is
actually the director and screenwriter of many famous ghost movies. I
guess I would have found this movie more gripping and entertaining if I
knew this before I went to the cinema.

Still, I wanted to argue, whatever the Chinese did in the movie
represented their goodness, while whatever the Japanese did was evil and

On my movie scale from 1 to 10, I rate this movie 7.5.

“So? Who is dead at the end?” M won’t budge.
“I know it was not fair. But would you feel better or worse if the
characters traded places in the movie? Would you prefer the Chinese
characters to be evil? Won’t that be even more a tragedy for China?!”

I knew I had a rhetoric advantage. M’s frustration alarmed me still. So
I thought of this topic some more. If there was any one character in the
movie that I found especially hateful, it had to be the Mr. Gao
(高某人) at the end. The one that was put in charge of the city after
Japanese surrendered. He represented all that was bad about Chinese
society, hypocritical, self-congratulatory, contemptuous toward the poor
and the less educated, and was always on a power-trip. I was just going
to say if the movie really showed a Chinese tragedy, then this Gao
Mou-ren was it. But I suddenly remembered Robert Kaplan. He mentioned a
class of people he met during his travel in Middle East, from Egypt to
Turkey to Iran. He called them the “most dangerous” educated class. They
were educated in the west, but they were dismissive toward human rights.
They respect power and money above all else.


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