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.
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.
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
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).
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.
Labels: Adrien Brody, Chinese Cinema, Henan famine, WWII Cinema