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The grand vision and sweeping scope of the Huayi Brothers’ $33 million Back to 1942 yield some stirring scenes but not much emotional impact, in director Feng Xiaogang’s epic reconstruction of the deadly famine that struck Henan Province during China’s war with Japan, leaving 3 million dead of starvation while Chiang Kai-shek’s government largely looked the other way. This is another key piece of historical documentation of the horrors linked to the Second World War and an important political acknowledgement on the part of China. Yet there is surprisingly little emotional resonance with the well-drawn and acted characters, making it a tiring two and a half hour trek for filmgoers who don’t have a stake in the history it recounts.
Obviously aimed at the international marketplace, but ultimately of little avail, are two American actors in the already unwieldy cast: Tim Robbins as a Catholic bishop in China and, more plausibly, Adrien Brody as the noted American journalist and “China Hand” Theodore White. Both characters seem tacked on as an after-thought to Liu Zhenyun’sscreenplay, especially Robbins’ walk-on scene as the Irish Father Megan, who consoles a Chinese missionary (Zhang Hanyu) whose faith is shaken by the horrors he has seen. Brody’s White is fitfully woven into the story as the classic eyewitness with a camera; it’s not a very original or compelling role, yet he does seem to influence history by pleading with Chiang Kai-shek to send relief to the starving masses and embarrassing him with his pieces in Time magazine.
But these two men are quite marginal to the epic story, which casts its net wide over a huge cast of historical and fictional characters. Top Chinese boxoffice director Feng, who made a name as an actor in hits like Kung Fu Hustle before directing big budget productions like If You Are the One and the earthquake epic Aftershock, directs this relentless exposé of horrors with panache but less empathy than, say, Wang Bing’s 2010 The Ditch, a memorial to the million Chinese caught in the political purges of the 1950s and deported to forced labor camps.
As the story begins, a great drought is in progress and the walled village of Yanjin in central China is running out of food. When a band of hungry farmers threatens to attack, rich property owner Fan (Zhang Guoli) agrees to feed them, but secretly sends for the guards. This sets the stage for the first big action sequence, a spectacularly filmed fight for food in which many are killed and the village is torched.
Fan, his family, their stubborn servant Shuang Zhu (Zhang Mo) and his tenant Hua Zhi (Xu Fan) are forced to set on the road with the other survivors or starve to death. (Some 10 million became displaced persons in this period.) Though they have a cart and more millet than the other wretched refugees, their supplies dwindle fearfully after a month on the road and the social distance between the Fans, their tenants and servants begins to evaporate. Their long march eastwards to the province of Shaanxi is filled with death and misery. Falling in with some retreating Nationalist Chinese soldiers, they are targeted by Japanese warplanes and are almost wiped out in an extended, edge-of-seat bombing sequence that is masterfully shot and edited.
Intercut with the refugees’ march, political figures of the day meet and make fateful decisions. There is proud, image-conscious Chiang Kai-shek (Chen Daoming) and his elegant wife Soong May-ling, the dismissive American ambassador Clarence E. Gauss, the dignified but helpless Henan governor Li Peiji (Li Xuejian) and others who fail to relieve the human disaster.
It is curious that, despite the fine cast lead by Zhang Guoli as the humbled landowner Fan and many touching scenes underlining their tragic plight, the story unfolds more like a reconstructed documentary with thrilling battle scenes, than a heart-wrenching tale about the Chinese people’s capacity for resistance in the tradition of Zhang Yimou. In the absence of important female characters, the story has only the stoic, dignified Fan to provide the viewer with an emotional link to the refugees and doesn’t offer the pay-off needed for this long a film.
Tech work is very high quality throughout and rises to the challenge of filming what looks like thousands of extras on screen at the same time. Adding convincing realism to the visuals is sure-footed cinematography in restrained grays and browns by Lu Yue, known for his work with Zhang Yimou, and costume designer Timmy Yip’s padded rags which envelope the refugees head to foot.
Venue: Rome Film Festival (competition)
Production companies: Huayi Brothers
Cast: Zhang Guoli, Adrien Brody, Tim Robbins, Xu Fan, Li Xuejian, Zhang Mo, Wang Ziwen, Chen Daoming, Alec Su, Hsing Alfred, Zhang Hanyu, Duan Yihong, Qiao Zhenyu, Lin Yongjian, Du Chun, Zhang Guoqiang, Zhang Shaohua, Lu Zhong
Director: Feng Xiaogang
Screenwriter: Liu Zhenyun based on his novel
Producers: Wang Zhonglei, Zhang Heping
Executive producers: Wang Zhonjun, Chen Kuo-fu, Wang Zhonglei
Director of photography: LuYue
Music: Zhao Jiping
Costume designer: Timmy Yip
Editor: Xiao Jang
Sales: Huayi Brothers
No rating, 143 minutes
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