Starring Zhang Guoli, Adrien Brody, and Tim Robbins. In Mandarin and English with English subtitles. Rated 14A.
During the Asian half of the Second World War, a disproportionate number of that conflict’s victims died of starvation. One of the most horrific instances of this phenomenon occurred in China’s Henan province in 1942, with the region losing almost a tenth of its 31 million inhabitants to the direct and indirect effects of famine. This catastrophe provides the subject matter for Feng Xiaogang’s latest disaster movie (the Chinese director being previously best known for his thoughtful, tremor-heavy blockbuster Aftershock).
Essentially, Back to 1942 travels in three directions at once. At the core of the drama is the pilgrimage undertaken by Fan (Zhang Guoli), a rich landlord who finds himself and the surviving members of his family reduced to refugee status as they struggle across the wintry plain (with surprisingly unskinny compatriots) in search of something to eat. And then there’s the parallel journey conducted by Theodore White (Adrien Brody), an American journalist determined to show the world just how deep Henan’s desperation really runs. And, finally, there is the more static court of Chiang Kai-shek, the Kuomintang generalissimo who is forever weighing the pros and cons of every decision while wild dogs tear corpses apart on isolated roads.
This is quite a logical structure, really, but it’s not a particularly dynamic one. It also points toward far too many false endings, a circumstance that results in Back to 1942 seeming even longer than it already is (147 minutes). Feng is obviously aware of this problem, because every half-hour or so he’ll throw in a bloody, CGI-heavy air raid to make sure that our attention doesn’t drift.
This tradeoff results in a reasonably engaging historical epic that is neither a masterpiece nor a write-off.
Watch the trailer for Back to 1942.