Film Review: Back to 1942

Famine imperils China's Henan province as Japanese soldiers attack in a World War II historical drama.

A tragedy from World War II gets blockbuster treatment in Back to 1942, with middling results. Clearly a huge undertaking, the film is a relatively even-handed account of a famine which killed three million people. But the storytelling in Back to 1942 is so careful that it fails to build much interest or emotion.

The screenplay by Liu Zhenyun, based on his memoir, opens in 1942, after a drought has devastated farms in Henan. The story focuses on two families: one led by the wealthy Landlord Fan (Zhang Guoli), who controls the local granary; and the other by tenant farmer Xialu (Feng Yuanzheng). When their village is overrun by neighboring farmers, the two families join a long line of refugees heading west, away from the invading Japanese army.

A separate plot puts the newly appointed province governor Li Peiji (Li Xuejian) on the spot when he is ordered to supply Chinese troops with 750,000 tons of grain. Li appeals to Chiang Kai-shek (Chen Daoming) for relief, but soon realizes that political situation has doomed the people of Henan.

A third storyline follows Time magazine correspondent Theodore H. White (Adrien Brody), who tries to raise concern over the refugees after trips into the countryside. At a remote monastery, Father Thomas Morgan (Tim Robbins) warns White to return to Chungking, the capital of wartime China. But first the journalist documents Japanese atrocities as well as the effects of mass starvation. White finagles a meeting with Chiang Kai-shek, but despite his efforts and the appeals of other humanitarians, no one can work out a solution for the people of Henan.

The bulk of the film documents the increasing degradation suffered by wealthy and peasants alike as they make their way west. Japanese bombers strafe refugee lines, Chinese soldiers steal food and money, desperate women trade sex for crackers, and the poorest resort to eating twigs and bark.

Feng Xiaogang, director of the enormously popular romance If You Are the One and its sequel, as well as the earthquake disaster epic Aftershock, marshaled an amazing production teeming with extras, period props and exotic settings in Back to 1942. But the air raids, refugee camps and forced marches tend to blur together. Dramatic interludes, staged like vignettes, also seem repetitive.

What works best in Back to 1942 are the political scenes, in particular those involving Chiang Kai-shek. Chen Daoming portrays the leader as intelligent and caring, but also a victim to forces outside his control. Chen's expression as he virtually condemns millions to death in order to concentrate on the war effort crystalizes the moral choices politicians face.

While Adrien Brody brings enthusiasm to his role as White, later a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, both he and Robbins feel out of place here. From the rest of the cast, only the venerable Li Xuejian and Fiona Wang as a spoiled schoolgirl make much of an impression.

It may seem heartless to complain that Back to 1942 isn't very moving. The subject is certainly important enough to merit a big-budget film. But in his 1973 film Distant Thunder, using an understated technique, the great Bengali director Satyajit Ray turned a similar famine in India into a story of unimaginable heartbreak.