23 February 2015

DVD Review - Back to 1942 (2012)

War Drama
Rating: 15
Feng Xiaogang
Adrian Brody, Tim Robbins, Fan Xu
Release: 23rd February 2015

Previously unavailable in the UK, Feng Xiaogang’s 2012 historical film, Back to 1942, perfectly addresses the famine of the Chinese province, Henan, during the 1942 Sino-Japanese war, which claimed the lives of more than 3 million people.

Wealthy landowner, Master Fan (played by Zhang Guoli) and his family are forced to flee from his hometown that has been heavily affected by famine during the Sino-Japanese war, and walks alongside Shuan Zhu (Mo Zhang), a servant. The families are later joined by Xialu, as he is one of the only travellers left with a highly sought-after cart, after Fan’s money and supplies are stolen during the Japanese bombing. Families are forced to eat tree bark, kill their donkeys for food and even resort to stealing from others and selling their children, in order to afford medicine and provisions. These images of famine are then put in stark contrast with the USA, as a slick Theodore White (Adrien Brody) discusses the drought in Henan with leader Zhang Lisheng, as he plans to expose the hardship the Henan refugees are facing and how the government is not helping. Tim Robbins stars as Father Megan, an Italian priest, whose role seems to only be there to provide Adrien Brody’s character with some kind of moral dilemma. The film touches on issues of government corruption, portraying the corrupt Chiang Kai-Shek’s regime and how the Henan tragedy was averted and kept under wraps by the officials, rather than solving it. There are constant juxtapositions of the rich and poor, the well-fed and the famine stricken, good and evil, the Chinese, Japanese and the American – shown by changes in lighting and mood.

Back to 1942‘s photography is skilfully bleak and grey (winning an A.I.C award for Best Cinematography in 2012), with harrowing images of dying children, animals feasting on dead bodies, screaming relatives and completely destroyed, desolate villages – Xiaogang definitely does not shy away from the horrors of the war, depicting one of the most catastrophic events of the 20th century. There is a lovely score, which serves to anchor the plight shown on screen, as the refugees struggle to survive without food in their freezing cold surroundings. However, the film’s music is played rather scarcely and can be ineffective at times, almost serving rather as an attractive break from the action and drama.

Based on an essay by Zhengyun Liu, ‘Remembering 1942’, the great detail the film goes into of 1940s Sino culture and the facts of the war makes it extremely interesting to watch for someone with no real prior knowledge of the devastating effects of the Henan famine; however the intense attention to detail causes the film to lose elements of humanity and storytelling, almost making it a dramatised documentary.

Although the script does not evoke much emotion, remaining more factual and focusing on the struggle of the Henan province as a whole during the Sino-Japanese war, the large cast give very moving and believable performances, salvaging a sometimes cold script. For fans of history and Chinese culture, it is perfect; for fans of drama, the incredible cast will stand out; and for fans of violence and action, it may not suffice. It displays a real Chinese history, albeit a sad, unpleasant one, but a major moment of history.


Jenn Spiers

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