Feng Xiaogang’s latest historical epic, Back to 1942, presents a vast panorama of the Henan famine of 1942, at once benefiting and suffering from its sweeping historical canvas. As the Japanese Imperial Army enters its fifth year of battering away at military leader Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese Nationalist forces, the Henan province is in the grip of a cataclysmic famine. Although the film doesn’t explicitly state the origins of the calamity, it quickly becomes clear that the corruption, incompetence, and outright cruelty of the Nationalist establishment have significantly exacerbated the crisis.
In one of the film’s main plotlines, Master Fan (Zhang Guoli) and his family join the stream of refugees fleeing Henan for Shaanxi. Fan is an arrogant caricature of a pre-communist Chinese landlord, and the rich man thinks himself generous to sell millet to his former peasants among the refugees. Back to 1942 interestingly charts the process by which Fan and his family become increasingly indistinguishable from all the other refugees, subjected to the same sufferings as them. Fan’s assertion to his daughter that they aren’t fleeing the famine, but are merely riding out a crisis, comes to ring hollow as calamity follows calamity.
Meanwhile, American journo Theodore White (Adrien Brody) attempts to document the catastrophe and bring it to the attention of the pathologically out-of-touch Nationalist authorities. His efforts eventually bring him into contact with Chiang Kai-shek (Chen Daoming) himself, whose ambivalence toward the famine—a desire to maintain good PR for the Nationalist government tempered by a genuine desire to help—makes him a particularly complex figure.
Feng’s depictions of the tribulations of the refugees are generally well-executed and some, such as a scene in which a desperate Chinese priest attempts to staunch the blood flowing from a young girl’s bullet wound by pressing down on it with his Bible, are unforgettable. But in painting a large-scale tableaux of the Henan disaster, Feng has inevitably been forced to sacrifice the specificity and focus on individual characterization that are generally so important for allowing the viewer a point of entry into such an important piece of history. In City of Life and Death, Lu Chuan succeeded in investing each scene of his similarly panoramic film with significance and heft, but there are scenes in Back to 1942 that are slack and redundant. The resulting, highly uneven film excels at dramatic set pieces, but stumbles in the sections that link them together.