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A big budget examination of another little known piece of Chinese history
Labelled 'the Spielberg of China' with 15 box office successes in the last 20 years ranging from family-friendly comedies poking fun at China's materialistic culture to weightier, big budget historic epics such as 'Assembly', 'Aftershock' and now 'Back to 1942', Feng Xiaogang has become the most popular director of mainstream cinema in China. Yet, despite the work of Chinese directors such as Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou, Wong Kar-Wai and Ang Lee, Feng Xiaogang is virtually unknown to Western audiences, something that the Chinese government is attempting to put right by submitting 'Back to 1942' as the country's official Oscar submission for Best Foreign Language Film this year.
Adapted from the book 'Remembering 1942' by Liu Zhenyun, the film is a historical disaster epic following the fates of refugees during the drought and famine in Henan Province, which devastated the region and left 3 million dead of starvation during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45). As well as featuring famous Chinese stars such as Chen Daoming (Aftershock) and Zhang Hanyu (White Vengeance), the film is one of the few Chinese productions to boast Hollywood talent in the form of Oscar winner, Adrien Brody and Tim Robbins, recalling Christian Bale's turn in 'The Flowers of War' (2011) chronicling the Japanese attack on Nanking.
The film follows the fortunes of landlord Fan (Zhang Guoli), who with his family joins the mass exodus of people after their village is destroyed by bandits, leaving behind their privileged lifestyle and falling in with the desperate masses as they head west looking for solace and hope. Hoping to lead the refugees is deserter turned priest An Ximan (Zhang Hanyu), though he soon comes to realise the hopelessness of the situation, with starvation spreading, (Chinese) soldiers raiding for supplies, and the Japanese bombing indiscriminately. With Nationalist (Kuomintang) politicians bickering over what to do and how to profit from the situation with their American, British and Soviet allies, it is left to Time magazine correspondent, Theodore White (Adrien Brody), to reveal the true extent of the catastrophe that has befallen Henan Province by venturing into the disaster zone and exposing the full horror of the people's suffering.
Back to 1942 is a hard hitting and unrelentingly grim disaster movie playing through the eyes and experiences of its ensemble cast, switching between the three main stories of Fan, White and the Nationalist and provincial governments at a pace that cracks along, despite its 145 minutes length. Through his earlier work Feng has demonstrated a talent for tapping into public sentiment and mining melodrama on a national scale. The result has been a slew of hit films that have dealt with little known areas of Chinese history and in doing so, reveals a little more about China itself and for a Western audience that is a welcome change from the usual diet of Hollywood teen comedies, superhero movies and remakes.
Feng said recently in an interview that if it were not for censorship, Back to 1942 'would be even more cruel'. I am not sure how this could be possible without the film lapsing into parody. Feng pulls few punches and does a good job of recreating a believable sense of desperation and despair and at times, darkly satirical comedic moments are exposed which puts the viewer in an awkward position as to whether to laugh or cry (the loss of the donkey being a good example). In part this is due to the real horror of the situation, depicted in fairly graphic detail in the film, as the refugees run out of food and trudge onwards through incredibly harsh conditions, being reduced to eating bark and eventually resorting to cannibalism and selling family members for meagre bags of millet in order to survive. Feng presents much of this without fuss or fanfare and the film is all the more harrowing for the way in which it shows conditions spiralling quickly out of control against the backdrop of the government jockeying for position.
Where film can often be politicised by the Chinese authorities as criticisms of the government, Feng does a good job of appearing neutral and never assigning blame for the disaster, nor criticising the behaviour of the Chinese soldiers who frequently rob the refugees for their own survival. Even the casual and indiscriminate violence of the Japanese soldiers is portrayed as a by product of war, rather than as any grand social or historical criticism, which no doubt the Chinese government would have preferred. In doing so, the film has escaped much of the censorship that plagues Chinese directors who are often welcomed as the darlings of the international film festival circuit.
For students of Chinese history, the complete omission of the government's taxation policy is jarring since it made the food shortages far worse, nor is there any reference to Mao Zedong and the communists, ironic given that the refugees are travelling to Shaanxi Province to escape the famine which was the headquarters of Mao's fledgling Chinese Communist Party.
Despite these pedantic omissions, Back to 1942 is a gripping telling of a little known period of Chinese history that wears its heart on its sleeve without the film being too melodramatic, or trying to drown the viewer in manipulative tears. No doubt tears will be shed as a result of the horror of the situations that the refugees find themselves in but Feng tries hard to make his film politically neutral and to tell the story as it was. Feng is one of China's most talented directors and the huge budget he has to play with (by Chinese standards) really shows up on screen with some stunning visuals and action. Though grim and quite depressing, Back to 1942 is a worthy addition to the pantheon of epic disaster movies and succeeds in revealing the horrific human suffering behind a monstrous and quite possibly avoidable tragedy.
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