Before I went to watch this movie, I thought it might be another attempt by another Chinese director to win western market. Adrien Brody? Tim Robbins? Hmm. I wasn’t sure. How wrong I was, this movie was all about Chinese: government corruption, Chinese fighting Chinese, and bureaucratism, the movie showed them all, and more importantly, real. A deadly drought in 1942 takes its toll on central China’s Henan province during the war against Japan. There’s a well to do landlord in Master Fan (Zhang Guoli) who opens the movie, as we bear witness to his slow and inevitable descend from prince to pauper, having a stockpile that got naturally targeted by bandits, and when all hell broke loose, he suffers tragedy after tragedy, joining the millions of others on their trek westwards to find food, and also incidentally escape from invading Japanese forces.
Adrien Brody is effectively engaging as a very eager T.H. White who’s desperately trying to expose the truth, whether driven by his journalist instincts, Pulitzer, or a genuine sympathy for the poor and depraved. However don’t even get me to start with Tim Robbins – why is he even in the film??? The couple of scenes he’s in are cringe-inducing. Even if you edit them out altogether it would not affect the story’s flow whatsoever. A rather controlled and somber depiction of a dark chapter in modern history, subtly echoing another tragedy that happened 16 years later. Surprisingly un-judgmental and un-sentimental for a historical film recreating despair and lowest possible form of human existence. Feng presents the multiple layers of clues and facts that lead to the ultimate tolls almost as-matter-of-factly, leaving the audience putting together the puzzles and drawing their own conclusions, which is a rather clever way of avoiding censorship and engaging the audience.
BACK TO 1942 is clearly a tent pole movie for the Chinese cinema and then carries a double load. It is an intense, long, demanding account of the 1942 Hunan famine and refugee exodus, made more terrible by the parallel war with the Japanese and also a revision of history with Chiang Kai Shek now shown as both calculating and remote, as well as caring and authoritative but only a support player in the story of the land lord and serf reduced to destitution on their awful journey. Intriguingly, Theodore White writer of sixties Wolper Documentaries and “The Mountain Road” shows up effectively in the person of Adrian Brody, as a character. Master crafted, some of the staging is exceptional. The bombing raids are great set pieces and the film manages to keep disaster chic in hand, even if it’s so grim.
This movie is excellent if you are wanting to learn more about the history of China (war and famine) but not so good if you simply want to view it for leisure. The whole film has no plot in particular. It only focuses on simply aspects like death, find food, starvation, killing etc. There are various disturbing scenes and lots of death scenes. Feng Xioagang can be considered China’s – possibly Asia’s – most substantial film maker. His output is increasingly imposing and his box office clout means that the content of his work must come under intense official scrutiny. Still, It’s an epic on the grandest scale, succeeding because it tells stories of the human condition that everyone can identify with. Highly recommended, as I ponder what other historical backdrop the director would be tackling next, since he has a keen eye and a knack for it!