Back to 1942 – China, 2012
I have two words for anyone brave enough to watch Xiaogang Feng’s epic film Back to 1942: Prepare yourself. I say this not just because Back to 1942 takes place during a time of war or that it graphically depicts the brutality of war, but also because Back to 1942, like 2010’s City of Life and Death has the potential to make viewers go emotionally numb. This is understandable, for films like this one walk a very fine line. On the one hand, they seek to be as realistic and true to life as possible; on the other hand, they require viewers to remain emotionally invested in the characters they see on the screen, to support them in their quest to survive, and to grieve with them when their loved ones pay the ultimate price. With its breadth of characters and the seemingly unending misery that unfolds as it progresses, I imagine this will prove challenging to some. So I’ll say it again: Prepare yourself. What unfolds is not for the weak of heart.
The film takes place in 1942, in what was to China the fifth year of the Second Word War. It begins in Henan on the first day of Chinese New Year, normally a day of celebration and festivities. There the film introduces us to Master Fan (Guoli Zhang), the head of a rich household, so rich in fact that he has his own armed guards and much more food than the average person. It is because of the latter that bandits crash the party, and Fan eventually agrees to feed them, all the while sending a servant named Shuang Zhu (Mo Zhang) to secretly summon the authorities. When word of this betrayal leaks, violence breaks out, and in the ensuing chaos, the entire area is engulfed in flames. The incident leaves countless dead, including Fan’s son. It is the first of many casualties that he and his family will endure by the end of the film. Soon with the looming threat of a Japanese invasion and the harsh reality of the ongoing famine, most residents pack up what belongings they can carry and begin a mass exodus for Shaanxi, where it is said that people from this part of Henan have always fled to in times of desperation.
In between scenes of the mass exodus are events that take place far away from the famine. Many of them involve Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek (played by Daoming Chen), and Back to 1942 echoes other recent films in portraying him as a leader who has come to tolerate the corruption of the officials around him and only responds to crises when doing otherwise would hurt him politically. When he learns that a local newspaper has reported on the famine, his first response is to suppress the newspaper and punish the author of the editorial. However, the film also accurately details just how much the general was dealing with at the time, and it leaves open to interpretation whether his government’s inaction was the result of a decision to let the people in Henan starve so that soldiers would have a better chance at surviving or simply the result of his indifference.
The film also includes the stories of two Westerners, Theodore White, a Time Magazine reporter, and Father Thomas Megan, played by Adrian Brody and Tim Robbins. White is the kind of reporter who hears about a story and is drawn to see it up close and personal, and soon he finds himself among the refugees as bombs reign down around him from Japanese bombers. That experience, as well as the countless other acts of barbarity and desperation that he witnesses, cause him to seek an audience with the Generalissimo, in the hopes that such a meeting will produce action on the part of the government. And for a moment, it looks like it will – at least until corruption and profiteering rear their ugly heads. As for Robbins, he is given relatively little to do in the film, and it seems that the whole purpose of including Father Megan in the film was to allow a shell-shocked character named Brother Sim to question where God is during their time of suffering. It’s understandable that such questions would come up, yet the scenes in which they are asked add nothing to the film, and little would have been lost by their exclusion.
As interesting as the scenes depicting political maneuvering and corrupt deal-making are, there are simply too many of them. Moreover, like other recent historical films from China, the film tries to inform viewers who all of the characters are, even if they are only on screen for a few minutes. The result is that several scenes exist just to show what a historical figure did during this time, and unless viewers are history enthusiasts, they are not likely to get much from these scenes.
This is not true of the scenes involving Fan, his family, Shuang Zhu, and the family of a farmer named Xia Lu (Yuanzheng Feng), for it is their struggle to survive that drives the film and keeps the audience emotionally involved. Nothing is easy, for them or the audience. The film is realistically graphic in its depiction of violence and the aftermath of bombings. It is also equally unsparing in its depiction of just how easy it is how noble people to become unhinged and lose sight of their humanity. In one scene, chaos erupts after a particularly devastating air attack, and it is unsettling to see just how rapidly soldiers turn against the very people they are said to be fighting to protect. This is actually a recurring theme, and one cannot help but get the sense that even though China’s civil war had been put on hold by that time, the country was clearly deeply conflicted.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the discomforting way in which women are depicted in the film, if only to prepare audiences for what they are about to see. This is not a Western film. In most Western films, families are depicted as valuing people over things and of refusing to be separated from their families. Here, female family members are sold into prostitution or sold off as wives so that the rest of the family has a chance to live, and unlike American films, in which a character would be wracked with guilt over his actions and repudiate his ill-gotten gains, here it is the opposite. The gains are protected because of the terrible price that was paid to obtain them. It’s pointless arguing which is the more moral reaction. Things like this have happened throughout history, and in some areas of the world, they continue to happen. Perhaps what was more shocking was the way the men who took part in such sales justified it by saying they were just doing their part to help the refugees.
By now, it should be clear that Back to 1942 is by no means an easy film to watch. However, films like this are important, for they make the case that films can be more than just two hours of mindless entertainment. They can be a way of recording and presenting historical events, ones that, despite people’s reluctance to talk about them, must remain a part of mankind’s collective memory. Having seen the film, I can tell you that it’s unforgettable, and I hope people give it a chance. That said, I also hope I never see it again. (on DVD and Blu-ray)
3 and a half stars
*Back to 1942 is in Chinese, Japanese, and English with English subtitles.
*The film will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on May 14, 2013.