Feng Xiaogang is one name in Chinese cinema that usually means a film that contains emotional power and often accompanied with such splendid cinematography that Western viewers just eat up his work. While his style of direction isn’t perfect, Feng had impressed with visual splendor with The Banquet, broke hearts with Aftershock and shown such gritty war images with The Assembly. This time, Feng and Liu Zhenyun adapts the novel Remembering 1942, in the 2012 production “Back to 1942”.
The film depicts one of the darkest times in Chinese history as it brings forth the story of the famine of 1942 in Henan province where 3 million souls were taken from the land of the living. It is a humanitarian crisis that was sparked by drought, government corruption, damaging weather and a war with Japan. The film attempts to depict the massive changes in Chinese history through the eyes of one family. Here, we see the family of Fan (Zhang Guoli) who had somehow managed to maintain his fiefdom despite a devastating famine in Henan. But things changed when a group of bandits causes his family and villagers to flee their refuge, and to try to make it out in the wasteland and reach more fertile lands. Fan is accompanied by his daughter-in-law, his daughter and wife, and a kindly servant, Shuanzhu (Zhang Mo) also joins in his journey. They befriend a villager named Xialu (Feng Yuanzheng) and his family.
There are a lot of things that goes on in this film. The screenplay goes into several things about the famine; its effects on faith and the common folk, the poor government response, the war and the effort of an American journalist (Adrien Brody) to bring its story to the world. The film is very ambitious, it tries to cover as much ground as possible. The direction and writing obviously wanted to bring as much detail as it could. Unfortunately, the way it goes around so many tangents to accentuate the epic sweep of such an event causes the film to lose a lot of its ground. It loses that very personal attachment by focusing on one family as seen through their eyes, the screenplay feels that it was merely ‘breezing’ through the many events. Other skilled directors could pull off such a style, but it appears as if while Feng Xiaogang may have such skill, he seems to be holding back and so what results is a film that hardly scratches any surface, that it feels that he had merely given a glimpse and not a full presentation of one of the darkest times in history.
I mean, there is a lot that goes on in the film. We are introduced to a priest who witnesses the horror. Father Sim (Zhang Hanyu) seeks to preach the Christian faith and yet, he declares that he now doubts the existence of God to a fellow priest (Tim Robbins). Brody plays the American journalist Theodore White, who wishes to help by telling its story; his struggles with politics and Chinese authority figure leaves him frustrated as no one in power appeared to care too much about Henan. I thought while such subplots did advance the plot, I did find their execution to feel a little too forced. I would’ve wished that the script focused on the refugees, and the corruption within the many levels of government. The way some businessmen had profited through the suffering of others and how the leaders in government wanted to ignore the Henan situation would’ve been a compelling enough narrative. There were so many unnecessary tangents that made the film feel like a diorama rather than a drama, that the film fails to connect with the potential power of its premise. Feng feels as if he was playing it a little ‘safe’ as with some of his other films, and so he fails to reach that area that would've allowed viewers to connect more easily.
Despite its flaws in the screenplay, the film is exquisitely shot. The costumes and the set pieces were near perfect that I did feel that I was in that moment in 1942. The film does manages to bring the horrific areas of famine and war when it does get going. Those who have seen Feng’s work with The Assembly would know that the director does know how to shoot the horrors of war. Bombings and gunfire were an added ’plus’ in its narrative as the refugees become under siege by the Japanese. The power and fury of the explosions were felt as bodies were blown to bits and pieces shredded without any mercy. The special effects were handled immaculately that the viewer could feel what the people were feeling.
The performances were also good all around despite the lack of dramatic execution in its script. The Asian cast was great in their performances and I do commend Feng’s mindful attention to detail as he was wise to include Cantonese, Japanese and English languages to be used by its characters to give it authenticity. However, because of the script being a little too unfocused and busy, even when a major character fell ill or met disaster, I barely felt the tragedy and emotions behind it. It was such a waste of raw talent on Feng’s film, since it suffers so much because of its crazy amount of characters.
“Back to 1942” is one film that I should love but sadly I could not connect with it. The handling of the human emotions in such an event should’ve been larger so that it could trigger the impact of the drama being seen. It has a lot of compelling elements carelessly executed, that they could not reach that ‘heartfelt’ emotion until the final moments in the film. It feels a little too heavy-handed and tries a little too hard to spoon-feed its emotions rather than allowing its viewer to become motivated to feel the plight of its characters. It is a standard story about the human spirit being dashed, but sadly the narrative keeps everything at arm’s length that the characters failed to become human beings rather than mere figures in a story. I had issues to feel and sympathize because of the messy screenplay. This film became a generic drama with massive strokes but lacked depth and shades. Which was too bad, it had its heart in the right place. Rental [3 Out of 5 Stars]
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