Despite its name, “Back to 1942” isn’t in fact a time travel flick, but the latest blockbuster from top Chinese helmer Feng Xiaogang, responsible for recent hits such as “Aftershock” and “The Assembly”. Adapted from the book “Remembering 1942” by its author 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 millions dead. As well as acclaimed Chinese stars such as Zhang Guoli (“Foster Father”), Chen Daoming (“Aftershock”), Xu Fan (“Love in Space”), Zhang Hanyu (“White Vengeance”), Li Xuejian (“Love for Life”), the film is one of the few Asian productions to boast actual Western talent in the form of Academy Awards winners Adrien Brody (“The Piano”) and Tim Robbins (“The Shawshank Redemption”).
Unsurprisingly set in 1942, the film takes place during a time of turmoil and conflict in China, with the Japanese invading and Henan Province being hit by a terrible drought and a plague of locusts, ravishing the countryside and forcing millions of people to abandon their homes and take to the road in search of help. In particular, the film follows landlord Fan (Zhang Guoli), who with his family joins the mass exodus after their village is attacked by bandits, leaving behind their privileged lifestyle and falling in with the desperate masses as they head west. Hoping to lead the refugees is priest An Ximan (Zhang Hanyu), though he soon comes to realise the hopelessness of the situation, with starvation spreading, soldiers raiding for supplies, and the Japanese bombing indiscriminately. With Kuomintang politicians bickering over what to do and how to profit from the situation, Time magazine correspondent Theodore White (Adrien Brody) ventures into the disaster zone, hoping to get first hand evidence to expose the true horror of the people’s suffering.
Feng Xiaogang has over the years had quite a fascinating career, growing from small scale, though sharp and incisively dark satirical comedies through to full scale, huge-budgeted blockbusters, his earlier knack for tapping into public sentiment and current issues translating well into a talent for commercial and surprisingly palatable melodrama on a national scale. “Back to 1942” sees him continuing along the same road, refining his approach somewhat, making for a genuinely bleak and hard-hitting disaster movie that both has heart and tackles wider themes. Narratively, the film sticks fairly closely to the genre formula, playing out through the eyes and experiences of its ensemble cast, switching between the three main stories of Fan, White and the government in a manner which hold the interest and keeps things moving at a decent pace. While there are certainly tears and clumsy expressed emotions along the way, the film is much more affecting than others of its type, Feng pulling few punches and doing a great job of grounding the drama and adding a believable sense of desperation and despair.
In part this is due to the real horror of the situation, depicted here in fairly graphic detail, 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 to survive. To his credit, Feng presents much of this without fuss, and the film is all the more harrowing for the way in which it shows conditions spiralling quickly out of control, the government position-jockeying playing out in the background making for an at times shocking counterpoint to the grim fates of the characters. The film is balanced in this respect, never assigning simple blame for the disaster, the behaviour of the soldiers who frequently rob the refugees clearly coming from their own struggle to survive, which is very much the key theme here rather than any grand social or historical criticism.
Feng is easily one of China’s most talented directors, and the huge budget he had to play with here really shows up on screen, with some stunning visuals and a convincing recreation of the past, not to mention far better use of CGI than in most productions of its type. The battle and war scenes themselves are spectacular and well-handled, outstripping most Hollywood films and hitting home with real impact, in particular the terrifying Japanese bombing raids on the refugee colony, which the viewer quickly comes to dread. Feng also for the most part again shows himself very good at getting solid and emotional performances from his cast, Zhang Guoli impressing in the standout role, and Zhang Hanyu also doing a good job, his role as a deserter turned priest allowing the film to make some interesting statements about religion and hope. Of the two Hollywood stars, Aiden Brody comes off best, Tim Robbins struggling with an odd accent and a few instances of strangely worded dialogue, though the presence of both instead of the usual dragged in off the street western actors does at least add a certain something.
Every inch the big budget blockbuster, “Back to 1942” is another worthy notch on Feng Xiaogang’s belt, and a film which wears its heart on its sleeve without trying to crassly drown the viewer in manipulative tears. Though grim and frankly quite depressing, it’s a worthy and rewarding historical disaster epic that hits all the right notes, and which succeeds in bringing out the horrific human suffering behind a monstrous, and quite possibly avoidable tragedy.
Xiaogang Feng (director) / Zhenyun Liu (screenplay)
CAST: Adrien Brody … Theodore Harold White
Daoming Chen … Chiang Kai-shek
Fan Xu Fan Xu … Hua Zhi
Hanyu Zhang … An Ximan