Back To 1942 (Yi jiu si er)

China (2012) Dir. Feng Xiaogang

The Japanese Occupation of China of the 1930’s and 40’s – also referred to as the Second Sino-Japanese War – has already provided Chinese filmmakers with plenty of material for a number of films recounting this period from their history. Much like how events of World War II have been extensively covered in western and European cinema, we wonder if there are any stories left to tell.

Known as “China’s Steven Spielberg” for his string of acclaimed epic blockbusters, Feng Xiaogang takes as his source material the novel Remembering 1942 by Liu Zhenyun, a dramatisation of the real life famine that hit the rural province of Henan and saw 10 million of its denizens flee for a better life, with 3 million eventually dying of starvation, whilst the Chinese government did nothing about it.

It begins with Henan being hit by a drought but wealthy property owner Fan (Zhang Guoli) is still able to feed everyone. When bandits come calling seeking food, Fan welcomes them and puts on a banquet but secretly informed the authorities which instead brought the Japanese troops to the village. A fight breaks out and among the many human fatalities, the food supply is destroyed too, forcing the villagers to leave Henan and seek refuge in the nearest province of Shaanxi.

The journey is rife with illness, malnutrition and death whilst the refugees try to avoid attacks from the Japanese army when briefly joined by Nationalist soldiers. Meanwhile Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek (Chen Daoming) learns of this plight but ignores it, officially downplaying its severity until US journalist Theodore H. White (Adrien Brody) joins the pilgrimage, witnessing the horrors first hand which he photographs and has published in TIME magazine.

As brutal as this sounds, little has really changed in the world since 1942 with many civilised countries still having wealthy and prosperously comfortable people in office while the folks at grass roots levels are suffering. Ironically, this is also prevalent in modern day China and yet there is no war or occupation by another country to blame this time, making Feng’s film tragically and shamefully vital in its content.

In this instance, Feng isn’t directing any blame to one source or necessarily implicating his country’s government of the era for the needless suffering, but does present a litany of horrific and avoidable situations that might have lessened the suffering and number of casualties incurred even with the threat of war looming. But this was a period of fear and uncertainty where self-preservation understandably often overrides our sense of charity.

Going on the biggest personal journey and learning the value of human life through loss is Fan. He begins the film as the gregarious cock of the walk in Henan as the wealthiest person in the village able to feed everyone for a little servitude in exchange, complete with loyal servant Shuanzhu (Zhang Mo), and when the convoy gets under way he still expects preferential treatment due to his wealth.

But his supplies are not inexhaustible and soon he is no more a high flyer than those he once looked down upon, his influence not recognised or entertained by anyone the further the journey goes. By the end an impoverished and physically broken Fan has lost members of his family, sold his tenant Hua Zhi (Xu Fan) into prostitution just to eat, and witnessed unspeakable vicissitudes and disregard for human life of his fellow refugees to cue a total re-evaluation of his attitudes.

It’s an amazing and highly emotional turn around that Feng handles with restraint, and with almost 2 ½ hours to work doesn’t rush either, making Fan a well-rounded character to follow. It is an experience that we sort of wish more people in positions of privilege would endure to give them some perspective in life, in this instance the likes of Chiang whose astounding vain ignorance makes him indirectly culpable for the 3 million deaths.  

When the gravity of the famine and the suffering is revealed to Chiang, his first thought is not about the refugees but for his image as a heartless leader and that of the national army. Later on when aid, in the form of grain, is finally on its way to Henan the local government department heads are arguing over their share, again ignoring the plight of the people for their own gain.

Because Feng has to be careful with his narrative to avoid falling foul of Chinese censors, he uses the outrage from a sympathetic Theo White to voice the opprobrium he and we all feel to cover Feng’s backside (although White and his article did actually exist). Elsewhere a lesser-explored subplot involving priest Sim (Zhang Hanyu) losing his faith after witnessing the suffering gives rise to a second foreign voice of dissent from Father Megan (Tim Robbins) a role which frankly, is extraneous.

Feng’s reputation as a big budget filmmaker might suggest this is an all style and no substance vanity piece but the opposite is in fact true. The cinematography is gorgeous, the attack scenes are epic in scale but Feng’s use of a muted colour palette, and a cast of committed and sturdy Chinese actors to immerse themselves into the tragic roles goes a long way to making this is gnarly and affecting viewing experience.

The run time however is a huge hurdle for any audience and the argument for trimming some of the fat is a no brainer. The scenes involving Tim Robbins have little overall effect on the main story and could have removed without harming the flow. It doesn’t help that BFI didn’t subtitle the English dialogue so Robbin’s mumbling was lost on me; at least Brody mostly spoke up.

A masterful piece of filmmaking that provokes without the need for didacticism but never fails to remain sensitive and empathetic in its tone, Back To 1942 reminds us why Feng Xiaogang has the reputation that he does and what it means to be generous to others.