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May 09, 2013

Back to 1942

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Yi Jiu Si Er
Feng Xiaogang - 2012
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

The history lessons in Back to 1942 are not exclusive to a specific place or time. While the subject is about a major famine in Henen Province, China during World War II, the human and political aspects have more universal resonance. To watch this film and think "it can't happen here" would be to miss the point, given recent history in the U.S. in the wake of hurricanes and other disasters.

This is not an easy film to watch. Feng attempts to work out a balance between the more personal story of the ill-fated journey of a Henen family with the various historical forces at work. At almost every turn, people make hard choices. Feng shows a degree of sympathy for Chiang Kai-shek, who might have been able to step in earlier had he been better informed about the situation. On the large scale, there is the conflict between military and humanitarian needs, feeding an army fighting the Japanese or taking care of a civilian population of thirty million. On a more intimate level, people argue over small amounts of grain, women are sold into prostitution to help feed other family members and as a way of survival, and refugees are caught between various governmental agencies that can't or won't help.

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This is the third of Feng's big budget films concerning 20th Century Chinese history, following Assembly and Aftershock. The two familiar star names here, Tim Robbins and Adrian Brody essentially have supporting roles. Robbins plays the part of Bishop Thomas Magen, who had a Catholic mission. Brody's is the more significant, as journalist Theodore White, who covered China for Time magazine during World War II, and wrote a book about the Henen famine. Even the casting of two Oscar winners cannot overcome the indifference towards Chinese films by most U.S. moviegoers. While Brody does bring sincere earnestness to his role, Robbins adds very little here.

The real star here is Zhang Guoli as Master Fan. The film follows Fan's odyssey from prosperous landowner and patriarch to lone refugee, last seen adopting an orphan girl he finds on the road. Fan's story is one of loss of family members and material possessions until there is nothing left but to go back to what's left of home. The film is from a novel by Liu Zhenyun. A New York Times essay by Liu explains why he wrote about Henen. While Feng's films such as A World without Thieves or If You are the One are more easily embraceable, he should get some credit for using his commercial success to take a look at some parts of Chinese history that many of his contemporaries would choose to ignore.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at May 9, 2013 06:26 AM