Thursday, November 29, 2012

Back to 1942: War and Famine in Henan Province

Over the centuries, it has been tough to be a Chinese peasant.  Famines have been a fact of life, but because they have been traditionally interpreted as a sign of heavenly displeasure with the ruling authorities, those in power have been more inclined towards denials than an activist response.  Such was the case during the Great Leap Forward and such was the case during the Republican era, at least according to Feng Xiaogang’s latest historical epic, Back to 1942 (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

The war is not going well for the Nationalist forces, but Chiang Kai-shek is trying to keep up appearances with the Allies.  He is looking to Henan’s granaries to support his beleaguered troops and his local administers do not have the guts to explain the boots-on-the-ground reality to him.  Faced with high taxes, drought, locusts, and the Imperial Japanese military, the peasants of Henan do what they have traditionally done: take flight to Shanxi.

It turns out the drought is a great leveler.  Amongst the refugee contingent is Landlord Fan and his family, accompanied by their sort of faithful servant and their formerly resentful tenants.  As they trudge towards an unwelcoming Shanxi, they are victimized by deserters and strafed by the Japanese, losing what little they had left.  While the Nationalist government turns a blind eye, American journalist Theodore H. White sets out to shame them into action.  Yet, even when relief is authorized, it is held up by graft and incompetence.  So pervasive are the horrors, they might even cause the ardent Father Sim to lose his faith.

Back is a tough film to take.  Based on Liu Zhenyun’s memoir (adapted by the author), Feng’s film puts his characters through the ringer for precious little pay-off.  Granted, it was a bleak period of history, but viewers are still left with the feeling of “all that for this?”  As one would expect from Feng (whose jingoistic Assembly happens to be a ripping good war film), Chiang rather takes it in the shins.  However, the film arguably has a soft spot for trouble-making Americans, like White (indeed, defying authority is what we’re best at, or at least it used to be).

Like the converse of Ironman 3 casting Andy Lau, Back to 1942 recruited some name actors to appeal to the American market, including a not half bad Adrien Brody as White.   Unfortunately, Tim Robbins looks completely out of place as Father Thomas Morgan.  Almost as if by design, the refugee characters largely blend together into a throng of downtrodden humanity, but Assembly star Zhang Hanyu stands out as the humbled Father Sim.  For shell-shocked angst, he is the man to get.  Likewise, Ziwen “Fiona” Wang has her moments as Xingxing, the disillusioned former daughter of privilege.

Although Feng is remarkably adept at staging big warfighting scenes, there is little of the spectacle of battle in Back.  Instead, he concentrates on the overflowing transports and teeming masses of refugees.  It is all quite a big, impressive production, but after a while it becomes exhausting overkill.  For hardy war movie enthusiasts, it opens tomorrow (11/30) at the AMC Empire and Village VII and in San Francisco at the AMC Mercado, courtesy of China Lion Entertainment.