“Back to 1942” / 《一九四二》- Review of Feng Xiaogang’s 2012 release [Film Business Asia / Sweet & Sour Cinema]

12 November 2012

by Derek Elley

Rated 8 out of 10

“Ironic, big-budget drama about a real-life famine in WW2 China defies expectations.”

Box-office magician FENG Xiaogang 馮小剛 has not always fared well artistically (The Banquet 夜宴 (2006), parts of Assembly 集結號 (2007)) when straying from his forte of ironic comedy. But in Back to 1942 一九四二, a megabudget ($35 million) portrayal of the famine in Henan province that claimed 3 million lives in the middle of the Sino-Japanese War, he gets the balance between spectacle, history, human characters and his trademark black humour just about right. Where his previous blockbuster, earthquake drama Aftershock 唐山大地震 (2010), was a very serious affair that tugged directly at the heartstrings, 1942, though dealing with a far bigger tragedy, takes an ironic approach that is more consistent with his overall body of work and makes the movie much more than just a war drama based on real events…

…The inspiration came from [scriptwriter LIU Zhenyun 劉震雲]’s 50-page essay-cum-memoir Remembering 1942 (温故一九四二), in which the Henan native tried to excavate his own family history and capture memories; written with Liu’s trademark irony (very similar to Feng’s), the essay was long thought unadaptable into a movie, having no plot or conventional characters or narrative. After two previous attempts, Feng and Liu finally succeeded, inventing a whole story from scraps in the essay which ambitiously attempts to combine the refugees’ exodus along with political events of the time — and even work into the mix real-life Time war correspondent Theodore H. White who first broke the story in the West.

White’s presence is justified by the major role he played in embarrassing Chiang Kai-shek’s KMT government to acknowledge the problem (though not enough to really solve it). US actor Adrien BRODY gives a reasonable facsimile of the passionate, 27-year-old journalist, without getting much of a chance to develop a real performance. Much more problematic is the presence of another US “name” to boost the film’s international profile: Tim ROBBINS’ extended cameo as a Catholic priest is both redundant to the plot and a distraction from the drama, and not helped by the actor’s wobbly (Oirish?) accent. In fact, the script’s incorporation of western religion into the story — largely to show how useless it was — makes similar scenes in The Flowers of War 金陵十三釵 look almost good: in particular, actor ZHANG Hanyu 張涵予’s Chinese priest, inveighing against godlessness and then being stunned by the horrors of war, is marginally risible and a pointless diversion.

Aside from White’s character, the story of 1942 is a Chinese one, and Feng has assembled a first-rate cast heavy with regulars…

…Given the large number of characters and the concomitant need to perpetually cross-cut between the refugee exodus in Henan and the corridors of power in Chongqing, 1942 doesn’t often build a real head of dramatic steam…

…1942 is not the last word in period blockbusters or movies about Chinese tragedies or human fortitude: it doesn’t pretend to be and, with its opening and closing narration (drawn directly from Liu’s original essay), makes clear its very specific goal. But for such a grim subject it’s not a hard sit or a downbeat one, or one that wallows in misery. It’s sharp, witty, moving and with memorable moments — and a real movie with people rather than an arid pamphlet on history.

Full review link: http://www.filmbiz.asia/reviews/back-to-1942

[Excerpted]

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