Jiang Wen, China’s most popular male actor, has directed two of China’s most honored films. In the Heat of the Sun was the box-office champion of 1994 and swept the Golden Horse awards: best film, actor, director, screenplay, cinematography, and sound. Devils on the Doorstep won the Jury Grand Prix at Cannes in 2000. But today, Heat has become unavailable in China and elsewhere, while Jiang Wen was banned from further directing for five years after Devils, which has never been screened in China.
Treated separately because of their sharply contrasting styles, these two works demonstrate a filmmaker’s mastery of cinematic possibilities, unsurpassed in Chinese film today. Taken together as an intentional pairing by a meticulous craftsman of the narrative medium, these two films surreptitiously but powerfully undermine the twin pillars of the Communist Party’s historical claim to legitimacy in China.
In the Heat of the Sun is the very definition of cinematic subversion. Set in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution, it is a story of children of the elite whose parents and elder siblings have been sent out to engage in Mao’s war on traditional culture, abandoning them to an ironic coming-of-age experience–as told by an inveterate liar.
Set in the last year of the War Against Japan, Devils on the Doorstep is as raw, passionate, and violent as it is in-your-face philosophical. Just suppose that your mortal enemy is delivered to your doorstep, tied up in a burlap bag–what do you do then?