Feng Xiaogang might not exactly be a household name in the West, but at home he’s one of China’s most bankable directors. Dubbed the Chinese Spielberg (perhaps a little reductively) he made his name with a series of crowd pleasing comedy films that had audiences queuing around the block in expectation. In recent years, he’s moved away from the comedy genre in favour of big budget, Hollywood-style dramas centred around historical events like the 1976 Tangshan Earthquake in Aftershock or the Civil War themed Assembly. Back to 1942 sees him step back even further in time to one of China’s great hidden tragedies, the great Henan famine of 1942.
In 1942, China was in a precarious political position as it faced the ongoing Japanese incursion and came under increasing pressure to align itself with Japan’s enemies as part of the wider global conflict. A serious drought could not have come at a worse time as ever-dwindling resources were pulled in several directions at once. The story here concerns a landlord, Fan, who originally had a sizeable grain store set aside to feed his family and retainers. However, after his village is raided by bandits he too is forced to travel westwards in the hope of finding better supplies. Along with his wife, pregnant daughter-in-law, daughter and servant as well as another family from the village he faces increasing hardship as he tries to find food to survive. Meanwhile, an American journalist employed by TIME magazine has got wind of the story and is trying to have something done about it, but to no avail. The government has the war effort as its top priority - what does it matter if a few peasants die as long as the army remains well fed?
Politically speaking, you can get away with talking about "unpleasant" historical events assuming that they happened before the communist revolution. The finger here is pointed quite squarely at Chang Kai-shek and his nationalist government, who are portrayed not only as unfeeling and self-interested but also as ineffectual when it comes to the business of conducting war with the Japanese. Indeed, at one point Chang suggests simply ceding Henan to the Japanese rather than go to the expense of defending this barren stretch of land. Though it is clear he is aware of the extent of the famine, he does little about it until eventually sending “emergency supplies” to “the disaster area” to try and alleviate the damage to his reputation and diplomatic relations with other powers when news of the famine finally reaches them after the conflict. Though the local governor appears genuinely concerned and does his best to get help for the starving people (even if it’s only to alleviate the ridiculous burdens placed on them to supply grain for the army even though there is none), he is hamstrung by the top-heavy hierarchical system.
No help is going to come from the government for Fan and his family. They might have been bigwigs once but now they’re in the same boat as everyone else - forced on a virtual death march through the arid land desperately trying to find anywhere that will yield to them the resources to survive. Bodies litter the landscape as the weaker succumb to starvation, donkeys and pack horses are eaten and finally wives and children are bought and sold in the hope of surviving a few hours more. Make no bones about it, Back to 1942 is almost two and a half hours of pure misery as one tragic yet inevitable event follows on to the next. Unfortunately, Feng has laid the gloom on a little thick in this understandably bleak tale - the tone never wavers and somehow the constant nature of its sorrows fail to engage as they take on a sadly predictable air. Despite the obvious potential of the story, there’s precious little actual drama and the performances fail to capture the audience’s sympathies as Fan and company are forced into increasingly degrading acts trying to ensure their own survival.
However, Back to 1942 was an expensive production and you can see all of that money on-screen as the battle and action sequences rival those of any Hollywood blockbuster. Whatever reservations there may be with its plotting, it always looks good and you could never accuse it of skimping out on its production design. The only minor criticism may be that the performances of non-Chinese actors feel significantly under-rehearsed, with Tim Robbins’ priest being the obvious example as he struggles with a strange accent and unclear position in the narrative. Adrien Brody fares better as the idealistic reporter but still fails to convince. The film doesn’t quite seem to know where to put itself when it comes both to the role of religion and of other powers active in China at this time and though neither of those ideas are at the forefront of this film, they muddy the waters in ways other than intended by the filmmaker.
An often beautifully photographed film, Back to 1942 is also a cold one and - given its depressing subject matter - something of a chore. The famine that struck the Henan region in 1942 and subsequent (non) reaction to it from the powers that be is indeed something that should be addressed and brought to light in the modern world, but perhaps it doesn’t need to be in such a blunt fashion. The film is long and wearing but ultimately fails to connect with the viewer in a non-cynical way, making its drawn-out proceedings a little on the tedious side for most viewers. Those with a taste for sentimental melodramas with high production values may find a lot to enjoy with Back to 1942, but those who prefer a more nuanced drama will likely be left disappointed.