Starring: Zhang Guoli, Chen Daoming, Xu Fan
Director: Feng Xiaogang
Category: IIB (Putonghua, English and Japanese)
A hitherto obscure second world war tragedy is given an epic treatment in Back to 1942, a blockbuster that's more successful as a graphic history lesson than a poignant picture-going event.
In his rendering of the Henan famine that took more than 3 million lives, director Feng Xiaogang attempts a grandiose sweep that encompasses not only the victims but also the calamity's reverberations upon a bureaucratic landscape extending to the wartime capital of Chongqing.
The latter aspect endows the proceedings with a dimension that eluded Feng's previous disaster spectacle, Aftershock (2010). Back to 1942's historical time frame, on the other hand, presumably gave Feng relative freedom to explore the manner in which partisanship affects and occasionally instigates so-called natural catastrophes.
It is this facet that ultimately provides the movie with a magnitude, along with a degree of irony, that transcends the sometimes forced nature of the multitudinous plot strands written by Henan native Liu Zhenyun. The cross-cut vignettes cover a lot of territory geographically and socially - the major protagonists include a landlord (Zhang Guoli) who's reduced to destitution, and the peasants upon whom he now must depend.
The women also represent an array of social strata, ranging from the landlord's pampered daughter (Fiona Wang Ziwen) to a tenant's earthy wife (Xu Fan). Though their plight is grievous, the film falls short of making the audience truly feel for them. Among the culprits are an overly manipulative background score and exploitatively explicit bloodletting that divert from the viewing experience.
Adrien Brody and Tim Robbins' presence also distract. Brody plays journalist Theodore H. White, whose Time magazine expose of the Henan horrors created international ripples. Important, yes, but his performance is awkward and his sequences never quite fit in. Nor does Robbins' turn as a Catholic priest who is involved in a contrived religious discourse centring on a disillusioned cleric.
More interesting are the officials whose actions and inactions alter the fates of countless denizens. Chiang Kai-shek (Chen Daoming) is intriguingly characterised with a degree of nuance that would never have been countenanced just a few years ago. The same goes for the sympathetic depiction of Henan governor Li Peiji (Li Xuejian). The recent thaw in relations between Taiwan and the mainland and re-evaluation of the Sino-Japanese war are also reflected in the lack of mention of Communist valour and even a degree of compassion for those driven by dire circumstances to collaborate with the enemy - phenomena that not too long ago could never transpire on the mainland screen.
Most fascinating, though, is the film's subtle evocation of the severer famine that erupted 15 years later in the wake of the Great Leap Forward. Largely the result of Maoist policies and a taboo cinematic topic for a half-century, its memory is an indirect beneficiary of Feng's journey back to the harrowing winter of 1942-43.
Back to 1942 opens today