Back to 1942 (2012)
Director: Feng Xiaogang
Writers: Liu Zhenyun
Starring: Zhang Guoli, Chen Daoming, Li Xuejian, Tim Robbins, and Adrien Brody

The Plot: Back to 1942 details a broad overview of the Chinese famine of 1942 that devastated the province of Henan. Our story begins when the famine is only first starting to take hold. We are introduced to Master Fan (Zhang Guoli), a wealthy landlord who seems as if he will have the least amount of trouble with the famine. However, things are turned upside down for Fan when his village is robbed by a wandering group of bandits. After this, he and his family begin a long and dangerous walk to find food and shelter. As they wander, with the aggressive Japanese on one side and the indifferent Chinese on the other, they go on a journey that will test the very limits of their humanity. While this famine destroys everything around them, American journalist Theodore H. White (Adrien Brody) shows up to investigate these happenings. What he finds leaves him shaken to the core. He goes back to the Chinese leaders, who have tried to ignore Henan in order to avoid having to disburse rations, and eventually forces them to do something. However, the officials in China are far too corrupt to do the right thing, and unfortunately those who survive this famine will do so on their own.

The Review
I believe that there is an innate quality within human nature that makes us crave information. No matter how ignorant we may be in some areas, it seems that most people enjoy having tidbits of information that their neighbors or friends might not have. Some of us crave textbook information a bit more than others, but there seems to be a longing for information that often drives the human spirit. As a filmgoer, I know that I am always intrigued by the prospect of seeing something from a different perspective. As any fan who loves genre cinema can tell you, sometimes it is the small deviations from genre stereotypes that can make a movie into something decent. When a movie offers up a huge part of history from the 20th century, a section of history that has rarely been discussed in the mainstream, it has the potential of being something great. Back to 1942 does just this. While the Henan famine of 1942 is not a completely forgotten piece of history, for most western audiences (including myself) this film serves as an eye opener. Displaying a horrifying period for many Chinese during the second world war, the amount of infuriating and disheartening material on display in this film will shock many audiences familiar with modern Chinese cinema. However, this is the sort of shock and horror that seems fitting for a tragedy that took three million lives off the face of this planet. While Back to 1942 is not an easy film to watch, it stands out for the power it displays in showing the anguish that humanity can be put through.

Although one shouldn’t pre-judge any film, I would be lying if I said that I didn’t have negative expectations before watching Back to 1942. It is a very recent Chinese film that focuses on the second World War and it features a pair of international actors within the cast, my reaction was to immediately produce my Chinese flag and start dancing around in order to celebrate the immortal Chinese spirit. Unfortunately, Chinese representations of history haven’t been all that unbiased within recent years. So, a great deal of patriotism was expected before walking into this Chinese epic, but for some reason the thought of seeing Tim Robbins and Adrien Brody both in a Chinese production seems rather intriguing. I’m sure I won’t be the first viewer drew to the film over this casting. However, Back to 1942 is not a film about flag waving or celebrating the grand accomplishments of China. It’s a movie that focuses on an awful point in Chinese history that saw millions of people die in the most desperate ways possible. The film throws the viewer headlong into the famine of Henan, a point in Chinese history that I’m sure many viewers will be completely unaware of. While the story doesn’t seem terribly focused at first, it does an admirable job of showing the chaos that encompassed this area of China during the heavy days of World War II.

1942 saw a large drought and subsequent famine hit China, and its aftermath would see the death of millions. This is of course a very expansive story that can not be done complete service by only focusing on a few characters. However, Back to 1942 does an admirable job in focusing on key elements that display how large this famine was and also how desperate the times were. The film delves into the politics of the time with a seemingly unbiased opinion, something that I would not have expected from a modern Chinese epic. This is likely due to the fact that while this is a film that displays a relatively modern view of China, it is still from a period preceding the Chinese Revolution. There were still “bad guys” within the Chinese government who put themselves ahead of the people. In the moments that deviate from the main characters, we do see a vision of politics not often displayed in Chinese cinema. We see the selfish Chinese leaders all but feeding their people to the antagonistic Japanese who are more than willing to allow the people of Henan to starve. This is all based upon reality though, as China found itself unable to look after Henan, due to warfare and the drought, so they had hoped that if they retreated from Henan that the Japanese would step in and take over the land while also providing for the captives. This did not happen, as the Japanese realized what was happening, and chose to stay on the borders. The film does well in representing this harsh reality, but it displays few “good guys” amongst any of the politicians shown onscreen.

Watching a father try to sell his daughter for Millet is only one of many several truly atrocious sights to behold in Back to 1942. The severity of the dilemma is actually a surprise to see within a modern Chinese feature. While the real life ordeal was no doubt even worse than what is shown in the film, with three million people essentially dying of starvation-related causes, Back to 1942 is not a movie that glosses over the past. While there are of course moments that showcase “the great spirit of the Chinese,” there is also a great deal of reality shown in the film. Such as the previously-mentioned scenes where we see how the Chinese authority turned their backs on Henan and of course the various tragedies that happened during these events. Interestingly, columnist Wendy Qian at establishes an interesting theory about the film and its potentially duplicitous meaning. While the movie does focus on the sorrows of 1942, Qian also points out how the movie might remind Chinese audiences of The Great Famine of 1959-62, which fell under the jurisdiction of the revolutionary government. Regardless of whether or not this was the singular intention of the filmmakers, Back to 1942 puts forth much more for the audience to think about than simply what is shown onscreen.

The Conclusion
Back to 1942 is a very big film that tries to encompass a very large story. The movie sometimes loses sight of its central characters, but ultimately this is a movie about a historical period rather than a singular experience. Despite this fact, Back to 1942 drums up some very strong drama and provides a harrowing experience that is reminiscent of Come and See. Definitively give this one a look. It gets a four out of five.

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