Back to 1942 一九四二 (2012) – China

Review by: Andrew Chan FCCA AACTA
Review Date: 14th December 2012
Releasing in cinemas across Australia and Hong Kong from 6 December 2012

Hong Kong Box Office Taking: HK$2,719,143

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While director Feng Xiaogang’s historical film “Back to 1942” does not reach the emotional heights of “Aftershock”, it is equally as epic, sensational and likely to leave the viewers brutally engaged and overwhelmed by the sheer scale of human atrocity on display.

What I really enjoyed about Feng Xiaogang’s latest work is the historical accuracy and the level of details that Feng is willing to depict on the big screen. A human tragedy, ultimate disaster and a Chinese historical moment, the story is that of how meaningless human lives was and how one can allow three million living species and comrades to starve to death. It is surprising that the film is able to present so much factual fact of the 1942 disaster as well as depicting the Chinese government in less than favourable light. Therefore, getting past censorship is an achievement it itself, then again, the film is in safe territory as the point of interest alludes to the exiled KMT government.

On a technical level, Feng is hard to surpass and the film feels extremely realistic, not unlike a documentary. It should be credited that Feng, unlike in his masterpiece “Aftershock” restrained from using manipulative emotional resonance to connect with the audience, but rather allow the sheer epic scale of the human disaster to engage and knock up with the audience.

The film contains few identifiable characters, namely alluring to the always brilliant Chen Daoming (“Hero”) as Chiang Kai-Shek who manages to steal every scenes with his subtle and underlying cunningness, smart and intrusive role. In fact, Chen’s smirk and deflated smile is at its most effective best since his acclaimed emperor’s role in Zhang Yimou’s “Hero”. American actors (Adrien Brody and Tim Robbins) are at least given small, but meatier roles than the usual Western / Mainland China corroboration. In particular Adrian Brody (“The Pianist”) shines as a determined report who oozes with presence despite the role effectively being nothing more than an extended cameo. Tim Robbins (“Mystic River”) as the kind hearted priest with a catalogue full of words of wisdom appears in a couple of scenes. Zhang Guoli (who ironically played Chiang Kai-Shek in the “Founding of the Republic” films) remains the only stand out and memorable character out of the pack of Henan’s long suffering and starving refugees as he is required to carried the film’s emotional core from start to finish. His will and determination to survive till the bitter end is most certainly one of the driving forces of the film.

In Feng’s portrayal of the famine should be given a mark of respect as he stayed true to its source and presented a view to a wider worldwide audience of a man-made disaster that is often covered up by authorities. One cannot stop for a second and think about a even worse famine that occurred in 1962 which landed almost 45 million deaths. The issues and causes are similar with the central government ignoring the needs of the people and quite frankly leaving many to starve, while still raking in taxes in loads. It is almost unattainable to imagine how one can allow so many needless deaths of children, women and civilians alike. If history tends to repeat itself, this film marks a reminder to all Chinese people that we need to learn from our history and not repeat the same human disaster that could have been avoided.

All in all, “Back in 1942” is an accomplishment in detailing a truly human atrocity event. Feng may not have infuse an emotional tantrum with the audience, but is once again able to tell an important piece of Chinese history in the most epic of scale. “Back to 1942” is not easy to digest and unlikely to convince non-historical film fans, but in terms of technical, acting, directing, producing, the film stand heads and shoulders above the majority of films coming out of Mainland China. The fact that Feng manages to comment about the extreme evils of government and human corruption shows that China is finally opening up to the world about its problems and its past. Nothing can ever justify the deaths of three million people, therefore Feng has done well to take the audience through this traumatic experience. It is easy to say that this film misses a few marks, but none of the flaws can deny the fact that this is truly an epic of a film. (Neo 2012)

I rated it 9/10

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