The emotion that was joined to spectacle in Feng Xiaogang’s mega-blockbuster “Aftershock” is exchanged for generic suffering and a few big yet uninvolving fighter-jet strafings in the helmer’s “Back to 1942.” Reportedly costing $35 million, Feng’s epic is set during the horrific Henan famine, when drought and the threat of a Japanese invasion were exacerbated by lamentable judgment from the Nationalist government. Shifting between individual suffering (performed, not felt) and extended political and business deliberations, the pic displays its budget but not its heart. China Lion will release the film in the U.S. and Canada day-and-date with its Nov. 30 mainland rollout.
Adapted from an essay/family memoir by novelist Liu Zhenyun, credited as scriptwriter, “Back to 1942” shines a light on a chapter of Chinese history little known in the West, overshadowed by WWII (conceded in the narration) and the Great Famine 16 years later. Approximately 3 million people died of starvation in Henan in 1942-43, and while Feng largely sticks with two families, one rich, the other poor, he’s also thrown enough extras into the Korea-lensed scenes to approximate a sense of mass tragedy. If only he’d focused on the drama rather than the spectacle of misery, he might have delivered a genuine heart-tugger instead of this dutifully crafted marathon.
Lord of the manor Fan (Zhang Guoli) is a wheeler-dealer willing to regretfully sell out his starving tenants to keep his wealth. When the locals riot, he and his family hit the road with other refugees in search of food and protection from threatened Japanese attack. Neither comes from the Chinese army, which has received orders from Chiang Kai-shek (Chen Daoming) to commandeer grain for the soldiers.
Time magazine newshound Theodore White (Adrien Brody) tries to convince Chiang of the severity of the famine, but the Generalissimo, as he was known, expresses concern yet does little to alleviate the suffering. Meanwhile, starving refugees flee northwest but find no relief. Fan loses his mother (Liu Lili) and daughter-in-law (Li Qian) to hunger, and his wife to a Japanese air attack. His former tenant Xialu (Feng Yuanzheng), still deferential, has similar tragedies, which force the remaining members of the two families together on an equal basis.
The scenes of suffering have a plodding feel, largely because along with their predictability is a constant awareness that beneath the increasingly threadbare clothes are actors who get to scrub their well-fed faces each evening. Not that the performers should suffer, of course, but “Back to 1942” rarely gets across true emotion. More believable are the frequent business deals being made, even among people who’ve reached the limit of endurance; the constant horse-trading conveys more about the Chinese character than the pic says about Chiang and his motivations.
Easily disposable are scenes of Tim Robbins half-heartedly attempting an Irish accent as Father Thomas Megan (the real priest was born in Iowa); Brody fares slightly better. Occasional battle sequences, with Japanese planes first bombing and then strafing refugees as well as the city of Chongqing, offer the requisite explosions and noise, but feel thoroughly standard in execution. Similarly, visuals are precisely what’s expected yet nothing more, including the usual muted tonalities, almost black on brown, too often favored by historical epics equating seriousness with a lack of color.