A rough road through China
By Mark Jenkins
Friday, November 30, 2012
About 3 million people died in China’s Henan province in 1942 during a famine intensified by fighting between Japanese and nationalist Chinese forces. It’s a grim tale, and “Back to 1942” doesn’t pretend otherwise. Few of this corpse-strewn epic’s major characters will survive to the final credits.
The story begins with an attempted rape and soon turns to the looting of a walled village by hungry peasants. When the first of the film’s many impressively staged crowd scenes ends, the settlement is destroyed. Its residents join other refugees, heading west toward, they hope, food.
The group’s patriarch is Fan (Zhang Guoli), a wealthy landlord who will watch his riches -- and his family -- evaporate. His pretty teenage daughter, Xingxing (Fiona Wang), tries to keep a bit of her former life, bringing along a book and a kitten. Xingxing’s would-be protector is Shuanzhu (Zhang Mo), a family farmhand who has a crush on the girl.
As the refugees travel, they wrangle for grub, with each other and Chinese troops. They’re periodically bombed and strafed by Japanese planes. There are many ways to die on this trip, none of them dignified.
Scripted by Liu Zhenyun from his memoir, “Remembering 1942” includes a few historical personages. Gen. Chiang Kai-shek (Chen Daoming) considers pleas from Henan’s governor while waiting for the Allies -- or perhaps Gandhi -- to rescue China. Time magazine reporter Theodore H. White (Adrien Brody) documents the carnage, outfitted with just a camera, crackers and a donkey that will soon be somebody’s dinner. (Later, White became known for his “The Making of the President” books.)
Also representing Hollywood is Tim Robbins, playing an English-speaking Catholic priest of indeterminate nationality. He counsels a Chinese cleric (Zhang Hanyu) who is questioning his faith after barely surviving a Japanese attack in which hundreds were slaughtered. The foreign priest blames the whole mess on the devil.
Among the best of the many recent Chinese films about World War II is 2000’s “Devils on the Doorstep,” a pitch-black comedy. Some of its devils were, of course, Japanese. “Back to 1942” includes incidents of Japanese brutality but goes harder on Chinese officials, who are depicted as bickering, indecisive and self-serving.
“Back to 1942” director Feng Xiaogang has been called China’s Steven Spielberg. His résumé includes romantic comedies and satires of the country’s newly affluent, but his biggest mainland hit to date is “Aftershock,” a 2010 earthquake saga that had a limited U.S. run.
Like that movie, “Back to 1942” shows the director’s mastery of chaotic spectacle, massed human motion and elegant camera movements. Both films demonstrate his tendencies toward glibness and sentimentality. Starvation and subtlety may be an unlikely pairing, but Feng’s historical horror show would actually be more moving if it were less openly emotional.
Contains bloody violence, animal cruelty and profanity. In Mandarin, English and Japanese with English subtitles.