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A still from "Back to 1942." [Photo: chinesefilms.cn]
Box-office magician FENG Xiaogang has not always fared well artistically (The Banquet (2006), parts of Assembly (2007)) when straying from his forte of ironic comedy. But in Back to 1942, 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 (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.
It's a tricky act to treat such a subject in such a way, but Feng and scriptwriter LIU Zhenyun, who first worked together on Feng's 1995 TV drama Yidi jimao and then on the contemporary satire Cell Phone (2003), manage it without seeming disrespectful. The inspiration came from Liu's 50-page essay-cum-memoir Remembering 1942, 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 look almost good: in particular, actor ZHANG Hanyu'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 (actress wife XU Fan, comedian FAN Wei, actor ZHANG Guoli, all in Cell Phone). They're fine as various refugees, without being exceptional or stretching themselves very far, despite the film's considerable physical challenges. The performance that lingers is that of veteran CHEN Daoming 陳道明 (the emperor in Hero (2002), the adoptive father in Aftershock) whose Chiang Kai-shek is a master-class in the power of minimalist acting, a man wrapped up in his own world, leading an utterly corrupt governing structure and out of touch with the country he purports to lead. Chen gets good support from other actors — notably fellow veteran LI Xuejian as Henan's well-meaning provincial governor and DUAN Yihong as a KMT propaganda suit — but his is the really commanding performance of the whole movie.
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. Veteran ZHAO Jiping's eloquent but restrained music is a real help on the emotional side, especially during the bloody aftermath of a Japanese bombing of the refugee column an hour into the film. Unlike Aftershock, 1942 stays clear of melodrama, and keeps a detached, ironic eye on human behaviour: the endless bottom-line practicality of the Chinese under stress, the trading of anything from food to people, and the comic-tragic twists of fate on the refugees' journey are all marbled with a rough, northern humour that could well escape non-Chinese (and especially average western) viewers.
On a technical level, the movie is very fine, with ace d.p. LÜ Yue's widescreen photography varying from bleak greys and icy whites to richer colours in urban scenes, while editing by XIAO Yang — clearly the result of boiling down much material — segues as smoothly as possible between the various plot strands. 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.
Source: Film Business Asia/ Written by Derek Elley
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