In 1942, Henan province was devastated by the most tragic famine in modern Chinese history, resulting in the deaths of at least three million men, women and children. Although the primary cause of the famine was a severe drought, it was exacerbated by locusts, windstorms, earthquakes, epidemic disease and the corruption of the ruling Kuomintang government. Meanwhile, war is about to break out between Japanese troops and Nationalist forces in North Henan. The province's full supply of grain is to be diverted to the Chinese troops...
How on Earth could a government, its army and bureaucrats turn their backs while three million citizens starved to death?
a harrowing and poignant account
That’s the disturbing question posed by Feng Xiaogang’s Back to 1942, a harrowing and poignant account of a shameful chapter in China’s history.
Lavishly budgeted at $US35 million, the film chronicles the famine that devastated Henan province during the Sino-Japanese War and the political apathy and corruption that allowed this gross inhumanity to happen.
It’s an engrossing saga of resistance, sacrifice, death, suffering and courage. The grim atmosphere is relieved occasionally by flashes of black humour in Liu Zhenyun’s screenplay, adapted from his essay/family memoir Remembering 1942.
The action scenes when the hapless villagers are attacked by Japanese bombers are amongst the most spectacular in recent times, comparable to the earthquakes brilliantly depicted in Feng’s 2010 blockbuster Aftershock.
Back to 1942 doesn’t quite match the emotional impact of the earlier film, perhaps because this film has a vast gallery of characters and Feng devotes a lot of screen time to the bi-play among federal and provincial politicians and businessmen. Also, in an obvious nod to Western audiences, the director cast Adrien Brody and Tim Robbins in secondary roles, neither of whom is central to the narrative. To be blunt, Robbins’ contribution is a pointless distraction.
The starting point is the winter of 1942 when millions of citizens are forced to flee as the Japanese threaten to attack, embarking on a perilous and arduous journey that ends in the spring of 1944.
The central protagonist is Fan (Zhang Guoli), a wealthy landowner in the walled village of Yanjin in central China. As the famine worsens, hungry farmers threaten to attack Fan, who calls in the guards, setting up the first big action sequence: a bitter fight in which many are killed and the village is torched.
Fan, his extended family, loyal servant Shuang Zhu (Zhang Mo) and his tenant Hua Zhi
(Xu Fan) set off with other refugees on the long march towards to the province of Shaanxi.
In the first half hour or so the haughty, selfish Fan evokes little or no sympathy: in the opening scene he attempts to rape Hua Zhi. But gradually the man’s humanity surfaces and he realises he’s no better than the lower orders.
'Dead is good. No more suffering," he reflects after the death of yet another family member. Each stage of the journey is signposted, e.g. 'Day 57, 110 miles from home.'
The arch-villain is Chiang Kai-shek (Chen Daoming), the leader of the Kuomintang party which governed China and turned a blind eye to the plight of the Henan people while he diverted resources to the battle against the Japanese. It’s a blood curdling portrayal of a ruthless and manipulative tyrant.
One of the few honourable men in the ruling class is the Henan governor Li Peiji (Li Xuejian), a dignified, well-meaning man who is powerless to help his people.
Brody bobs up occasionally as Theodore White, the Time magazine journalist who broke the story of the Henan humanitarian crisis. White gains an audience with Generalissimo Chiang, who initially dismisses the devastating famine as 'impossible," then claims reports of the scale of casualties are exaggerated.
Robbins plays Father Thomas Megan, a Catholic priest whose unsteady accent wanders across Europe, stopping off in Ireland and Italy and what might be somewhere in Eastern Europe. Megan serves as a clumsy device to introduce the angle of the Catholic Church’s response to the suffering, to no good purpose.
Another sequence in which Japanese planes bomb the city of Chongqing is similarly impressive.
Zhang Mo is superb as Fan’s servant, a feisty, proud and excitable man who becomes a pitiable figure.
The wide-screen cinematography by Lu Yue is bathed in greys and browns, which match the bleak mood, but it’s hard to discern the characters in some night scenes.
Refreshingly, the score by Zhao Jiping is restrained and subtle; the startling images do not need thunderous orchestrals or any other embellishment.