The Henan province disaster was one of the darkest eras in 20th-century Chinese history – a humanitarian crisis first sparked by drought and then compounded by a combination of windstorms, government corruption and the war with Japan. Feng Xiaogang's sledgehammer epic wants the world to know just how dark, precisely, and it leaves no arm untwisted, no emotion unmilked in its bid to drive its message home. Back to 1942, which screened as the "surprise film" at the Rome film festival, gives us history written in banner headlines and trumpeted by bugles. If it could bring itself to quieten down, it might be more successful.
Our tour guide through the inferno is stoical Fan (Zhang Guoli), a wealthy landowner in Yanjin county who loses everything and joins the caravan of refugees surging out of Henan in search of grain, with his fading family in tow. But the way ahead is stripped bare and treacherous, plus there are rumours that the nationalist army is poised to pull back and abandon 30 million of its citizens to the advancing Japanese. All around him, the people are starving. They're eating donkeys; they're munching on tree bark. When a hapless bandit is knocked head first into a pot of boiling water, it's a safe bet that they're going to eat him, too.
Feng previously scored a $100m (£629,069) domestic hit with his earthquake saga Aftershock, and Back to 1942 is already being tipped to break records at the Chinese box office. And yet the film's casting choices together with its grand unveiling in Rome suggest it has its sights set on the western market, too. The director shrewdly cross-cuts Fan's odyssey with the tale of Theodore White (Adrien Brody), an American journalist on hand to witness the carnage. Elsewhere, Tim Robbins crops up playing an Italian priest who seems to turn Irish halfway through. It is one of the few mysteries the film is content to leave unresolved.
There's no denying Feng knows how to lay on a big, populist spectacle. Back to 1942 has the teeming hordes, the widescreen vistas and the sense of a tangled, complex drama made simple; boiled down to bullet points. Even so, its ongoing marriage of bombast and sentiment does grate after a spell. On screen, the bombs rain down in loving closeup, sending the refugees off in vast explosions of offal. Then up come the strings on the soundtrack to remind us how tragic this is. Look: there's an innocent toddler jetting blood and breathing her last. And look: there's a winsome teenaged girl desperately hunting for her cherished pet cat amid the craters. Will she find it? Happily she does. "Meeow," says the cat as she takes it in her arms. No one, thank heavens, has seen fit to eat it yet
A tragedy from World War II gets blockbuster treatment in Back to 1942, with middling results. Clearly a huge undertaking, the film is a relatively even-handed account of a famine which killed three million people. But the storytelling in Back to 1942 is so careful that it fails to build much interest or emotion.
The screenplay by Liu Zhenyun, based on his memoir, opens in 1942, after a drought has devastated farms in Henan. The story focuses on two families: one led by the wealthy Landlord Fan (Zhang Guoli), who controls the local granary; and the other by tenant farmer Xialu (Feng Yuanzheng). When their village is overrun by neighboring farmers, the two families join a long line of refugees heading west, away from the invading Japanese army.
A separate plot puts the newly appointed province governor Li Peiji (Li Xuejian) on the spot when he is ordered to supply Chinese troops with 750,000 tons of grain. Li appeals to Chiang Kai-shek (Chen Daoming) for relief, but soon realizes that political situation has doomed the people of Henan.
A third storyline follows Time magazine correspondent Theodore H. White (Adrien Brody), who tries to raise concern over the refugees after trips into the countryside. At a remote monastery, Father Thomas Morgan (Tim Robbins) warns White to return to Chungking, the capital of wartime China. But first the journalist documents Japanese atrocities as well as the effects of mass starvation. White finagles a meeting with Chiang Kai-shek, but despite his efforts and the appeals of other humanitarians, no one can work out a solution for the people of Henan.
The bulk of the film documents the increasing degradation suffered by wealthy and peasants alike as they make their way west. Japanese bombers strafe refugee lines, Chinese soldiers steal food and money, desperate women trade sex for crackers, and the poorest resort to eating twigs and bark.
Feng Xiaogang, director of the enormously popular romance If You Are the One and its sequel, as well as the earthquake disaster epic Aftershock, marshaled an amazing production teeming with extras, period props and exotic settings in Back to 1942. But the air raids, refugee camps and forced marches tend to blur together. Dramatic interludes, staged like vignettes, also seem repetitive
What works best in Back to 1942 are the political scenes, in particular those involving Chiang Kai-shek. Chen Daoming portrays the leader as intelligent and caring, but also a victim to forces outside his control. Chen's expression as he virtually condemns millions to death in order to concentrate on the war effort crystalizes the moral choices politicians face.
While Adrien Brody brings enthusiasm to his role as White, later a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, both he and Robbins feel out of place here. From the rest of the cast, only the venerable Li Xuejian and Fiona Wang as a spoiled schoolgirl make much of an impression.
It may seem heartless to complain that Back to 1942 isn't very moving. The subject is certainly important enough to merit a big-budget film. But in his 1973 film Distant Thunder, using an understated technique, the great Bengali director Satyajit Ray turned a similar famine in India into a story of unimaginable heartbreak.
PlotIt is the winter of 1942. The film opens with Master Fan as a wealthy landlord in wartime Henan. When the village is suffering from famine, Fan still has plenty of food to feed his family and the villagers. A group of bandits come and rob the village, eventually burning it down to the ground. Fan's son died in the process of stopping the bandits.
Fan flees his hometown with his daughter, wife and daughter-in-law. They are also accompanied by a servant, Shuanzhu. Along their way west, they meet Xialu, a fellow villager, and the latter's family. They decide to flee together, but Fan's food supply and money are robbed by NRA soldiers amid the chaos caused by Japanese bombing.
Brother Sim insists on preaching his faith in the starving province. After suffering a few Japanese bombings and witnessing many innocent people dying, he takes refuge under Father Megan but starts doubting the presence of God.
Meanwhile, TIME correspondent Theodore H. White treks to Henan to investigate the famine. He discovers that while people are dying every day and some have even resorted to cannibalism, the Nationalist Government is still not doing anything to help the refugees. Chiang Kai-shek even wants to give up defending Henan, leaving the refugees to the Japanese. White's report is eventually published in the magazine, causing the Nationalist Government to make a U-turn on their policy. However, when relief supplies are being distributed in the province, the local officials and soldiers start fighting over who will receive a larger share.
The plight of Master Fan continues as his family members die one by one. He is eventually forced to sell his daughter into prostitution in return for food. Losing hope on life, he retreats eastward, planning to die somewhere near his home. On his way back, he meets a little girl who has just lost her mother. He adopts the girl as his granddaughter and they carry on their journey.