‘Devils’ on the Silver Screen
The camera pans across a dark riverbed as a squadron of soldiers makes their ghost-like appearance. Shirtless, all the better to show off their tattooed, muscular physiques, each man carries only a knife between his teeth. Yet these are no ancient warriors: They’re Japanese commandos, snorkeling underwater in perfect formation as they make their way up a secret channel leading to the National Revolutionary Army camp.
This scene comes about 30 minutes into “The Eight Hundred” — an over two-hour-long cinematic retelling of the defense of Sihang Warehouse, one of the final engagements of the 1937 Battle of Shanghai. The film’s own history is almost as remarkable as the story it’s based on. Delayed for a year amid criticism over its heroic portrayal of the Communist Party of China (CPC)-rival Kuomintang (KMT), it went on to become the country’s first post-pandemic blockbuster when it was finally approved for release this August.
But as it turns out, the KMT wasn’t the only force given a fresh look by director Guan Hu: The film’s strange, semi-spiritual depiction of the villainous Japanese army manages to be both revelatory and oddly reductionist. The soldiers above are driven not by wanton cruelty, as earlier Chinese films might have had it, but by something deep and ineluctable within their cultural DNA. If they’re devils, it’s only because they could never be anything else.
Devils and Monsters
Since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, the conflict known in China as the War of Resistance Against Japan has proven a reliable and popular subject with filmmakers and audiences alike. But if the genre’s conventions dictate the Japanese invaders play the part of the “bad guys,” the nature of their villainy has never been static. Instead, it’s changed over time to reflect China’s own shifting ideological landscape and sociocultural atmosphere.
From 1949 up until the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution in 1966 — a time known in Chinese film circles as the “17-year period” — movies such as “Guerrillas Sweep the Plain” (1955), “Landmine Warfare” (1962), and “Tunnel War” (1965) tended to portray Japanese soldiers as simple “devils,” or guizi.
Whatever their devilry, the Japanese characters in these films tended to be a buffoonish lot. Depicted as short, unattractive, and with shifty, vicious eyes and low IQs, they strut around with chickens hanging from their waists and shout after “flower girls” — Japanese slang for prostitutes.
They are also little match for the heroic Chinese guerillas, who typically win easily. The arcs conformed to the classic narrative of the revolution: Under the leadership of the CPC, victory in the “people’s war” is certain.
Beginning in the mid-1980s, however, Chinese depictions of the war moved away from a focus on guerrilla fighting and toward grand narratives. Accordingly, plots no longer revolved around battles of wits, but rather the mindless slaughter of innocent Chinese by the Imperial Japanese Army.
Japanese soldiers in films from this period showed appalling cruelty. They weren’t “devils” to be laughed at, but crazed killers. For example, in Zhang Yimou’s “Red Sorghum” (1987), the Japanese force villagers to skin each other alive. “Massacre in Nanjing” (1987) draws from accounts of Japanese atrocities committed after the fall of China’s then-capital: Japanese soldiers douse residents in gasoline before burning them alive; bayonet babies in front of their mothers; and rape and murder young women.
It may seem odd that this extreme turn came after the restoration of Sino-Japanese ties in 1972, but it fits snugly into the larger historical and cultural milieu of ’80s China. In the aftermath of the frenzied excesses of the Cultural Revolution, Chinese society and culture experienced a solemn reckoning. A feeling of impending doom overwhelmed many intellectuals: The War of Resistance wasn’t a series of guerrilla victories over comically inept imperialists, they warned, but a life-and-death struggle brought on by the failure of China to modernize and strengthen itself — a mistake the country seemed in danger of repeating.
Natural Born Killers?
The next major shift wouldn’t come until the new millennium, which saw the rise of “humanizing” portrayals of Japanese characters. Jiang Wen’s “Devils on the Doorstep” (2000) led the way in this respect. The film’s black-and-white imagery and the inclusion of the word “devils” in the title seemed to hark back to the 17-year period. But as anyone who’s seen the film knows, Jiang’s take is highly subversive, even satirical. His guerrillas aren’t natural heroes, but just as befuddled, confused, and scared as the average Japanese soldier.
Following “Devils on the Doorstep,” more nuanced portrayals of Japanese soldiers started appearing in Chinese cinemas. But they were less Jiang’s heirs than lazy copies of successful Hollywood formulas.
This was particularly true of their Japanese officers, who seem ripped from Hollywood depictions of Nazis as highly cultivated and refined individuals who also happened to be mass murderers. A Zhang Yimou film from this period, “The Flowers of War” (2011), includes a Japanese officer who could have wandered straight off the set of “Schindler’s List” (1993) or “The Pianist” (2002). At one point, he actually sits down in front of an organ for an impromptu concert so excruciatingly awkward, it could be considered a form of torture in its own right.
Yet these films foreshadowed what was to come in “The Eight Hundred.” At the end of Lu Chuan’s “City of Life and Death” (2009), for instance, the Japanese Army celebrates the capture of Nanjing with a bizarre war-dance. Nothing of the sort occurred in real life, and Lu has stated that the idea came to him in a dream. Whatever its origin, the scene suggests there was a unique, primitive aspect of Japanese culture and philosophy that underpinned their brutality.
“The Eight Hundred” expands on this theme. The Japanese routinely choose to forsake their modern weaponry and instead fight in a bizarre and barbaric fashion. At one point, the Japanese commander in charge of attacking the warehouse suddenly appears on the battlefield to inform his Chinese counterpart that, although his superiors had reassigned him elsewhere, he must continue the fight, “for my own dignity.”
Obviously, this is not the behavior of a modern general, for whom rigid adherence to military discipline is paramount. Rather, he is motivated by an outdated and irrational set of rules and values. As if to drive the point home, the director injects the scene with a deliberate romanticism: The Chinese and Japanese officers converse on horseback — one white, one black — as snow falls in subtropical Shanghai in October.
All this is to say, Chinese depictions of Japanese soldiers may be growing more diverse, but they’re also increasingly condescending, positioning the Japanese as a vicious and stubborn people immersed in a kind of mystic tradition from which they’re unable to free themselves.
It’s a narrative arc well known to those familiar with post-colonial narratives employed by many filmmakers over the years. As in American films like “The Deer Hunter” (1978), in which Vietnamese guerrillas force prisoners to play Russian roulette for their lives, the enemy isn’t simply cruel, but cruel in a ritualized, primitive way that cannot fail to leave an impression on the audience.
If the aim of 17-year period films was to carry forward the “people’s revolution” and instill optimism; the cinema of the ’80s to teach people about national tragedy; and post-2000 commercial blockbusters to express China’s desire for mainstream international success, I wonder what today’s portrayals of the Japanese Army reveal about contemporary China.
Perhaps directors are simply taking cues from Western cinematic language without recognizing the way it replicates narratives of cultural imperialism. Or perhaps, given the country’s soaring economic and national power, a sort of conceitedness, even a “great power mentality,” has begun to take root.
Translator: David Ball; editor: Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Visual elements from People Visual, edit by Ding Yining/Sixth Tone)