Back to 1942 – China’s Epic?

There’s something decidedly old-fashioned about Feng Xiaogang’s handsomely-mounted Chinese world war two epic, Back to 1942. Maybe it’s the wintry setting – or the length, for that matter – but there’s a lot of Doctor Zhivago in China’s entry for the ‘Best Foreign Language Film’ category at last year’s Oscars.
Even the opening voiceover screams prestige picture, with its ‘this is important!’ statements. But, you’ve got to hand it to them; it sure is . . .
The film tells the story of Master Fan (Zhang Guoli), a wealthy landlord who’s forced to flee his hometown when extreme famine hits the Henan province during the Sino-Japanese war of 1942.
It’s a shocking period of history that was unknown to me before going in and, if Xiaogang’s film does anything to raise the profile of this tragic piece of Chinese history, then it can be labeled a success. It’s just a shame that’s one of the film’s few true successes.

While Back to 1942attempts to emulate the ‘epic’ ensemble narratives of films such as Zhivago, with the inclusion of Adrien Brody’s US journalist fighting for the Henan refugees and Tim Robbins’ Father Megan, this is very much Fan’s story. But with Brody and Robbins relegated to little more than glorified cameo appearances, there’s not enough meat on Fan’s journey to merit the bloated 142-minute running time.
However, this lack of narrative complexity does ensure the film doesn’t suffer from any muddled storylines and the plotting, while somewhat unwieldy, is always easy to follow. But surely there’s a far more tightly-plotted (and more engaging) two-hour movie hidden in here somewhere.
That isn’t to say it’s all mundane. There are a number of rousing sequences dotted throughout the melodrama. Most reliable are the occasional Japanese bomb drops. While not necessarily in keeping with the character-driven drama on the ground, these impressively mounted aerial attacks are unavoidably heart-racing. Glossy CG planes swoop low flooding the Chinese plains with hellfire. Mud flies and rubble tumbles. It’s all rather exhilarating and the gore work is suitably tough. We’re dropped right at ground zero and Xiaogang shows us everything first-hand, in shot after shot of death and destruction.
But, taking a step back, not only is it jarring for the film to be brought to life by death, but these sequences are a tad over-the-top for an otherwise ‘realistic’ portrayal of these characters’ struggles. That being said, these scenes display a real technical prowess.
There’s also an awe-inspiring train-based sequence that makes full use of the budget and casts hundreds, if not thousands, of brilliantly tatty-clothed refugees to storm a cross-country train. It’s an excellent scene and yet again sends reminders of David Lean’s epic.

In the end, tonal inconsistency ensures Back to 1942 never really takes off dramatically. While it’s an immensely important subject, the earnestness sits at odds with the overripe melodrama, which in turn seems out of place against the action-packed battle scenes (and a bizarre, but undeniably memorable, dumpling-death). Back to 1942 is an admirable but, ultimately, unsuccessful attempt at crafting a true Chinese ‘epic’.


This review was originally written for Close-Up Film and the film is out now on DVD and VOD, in the UK.

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