Back to 1942
The British Film Institute has had many seasons dedicated to many national cinemas, directors, epochs or movements, with the supreme stature they have brought many old science fiction programmes, documentaries or, as is currently the case, Chinese films to the fore. Today they have released two home video releases as part of their Century of Chinese Cinema season, Fei Mu’s 1948 masterpiece Spring in a Small Town which will be up on the site tomorrow and Xiaogang Feng’s staggering achievement, Back to 1942.
In 1942, China was engaged in the Second Sino-Japanese War which alone was enough to trouble China’s central government. While defending their lands against invading Japanese forces a colossal disaster happened in Henan province, where drought and a scourge of locusts drove the 30 million people of Henan from their homes and livelihoods in dire search for food, shelter, and help. Contextually that is half of the population of the British Isles slowly starving to death and being killed by invading forces. Xiaogang Feng’s Back to 1942 is a humbling and horrifying film that depicts the personal loss in one of the biggest humanitarian failures of all time and the darkest year in China’s modern history.
Feng’s film tells numerous stories from numerous perspectives: Adrian Brody appears as a TIME magazine journalist Theodore White who selflessly records the atrocities suffered by the refugees, Guoli Zhang, as Master Fan, a former landlord who suffers untold personal loss during this year of great suffering and Daoming Chen, as Generalissimo Chiang, the figurehead of the Chinese central government who is struggling to balance war and disaster. Those are the highest profile threads, by their sides stand countless other characters that appear and disappear at a whim, whether their role has purpose or none.
This is the sole way this story could have been chronicled without overlooking anything vital. Politics cannot be divorced from this episode of history; however, scripter and novelist Zhenyun Liu has little interest in equilibrium. The Chinese military is represented as an antagonist, killing and stealing from the helpless refugees rather than defending their Chinese compatriots, the only degree of balance arriving tardily in the protracted runtime.
Back to 1942 shares similar ground to 1985’s Come and See or Keiji Nakazawa’s semi-autobiographical Barefoot Gen, in that it depicts the true horror of war for those caught in the middle. This is a bleak film ruled by misery and strong violence. The first hour is a perfect capsule, Fan and his family are part of a refugee collective who are forced out of their home, see the military take everything from them and then the Japanese military arrive in their bomber’s cutting a bloody swathe through a procession equally populated by the military. The swirling red clouds of bloody viscera, screams, and death ensure a genuinely distraught reaction. Feng’s hyper-violent action pulls no punches. If that wasn’t enough, the survivors have to fight off fellow survivors trying to steal their only positions, dust themselves off and continue their journey for aid. For many Back to 1942 may be too much, especially when one considers the lack of respite and the omnipresence of death’s icy grip.
Xiaogang Feng’s ¥210 million epic is a feat of spectacle and scale with its cast of thousands, but the core that drives this stiflingly harsh reality is the intelligent characterisation. The film sees people at their most desperate where their exhausted bodies and untainted survival instinct is expressed in a way that is universally true to the human experience, it’s this sole feature that sees the film break your heart like it’s going out of fashion. A sick elderly woman offering to hang herself so that a new-born can live that bit longer, mothers selling themselves so that their young children have something to eat, the film is endemic with such examples. Those broken people being punished by their fellow man so relentlessly prevails thanks to the film being altogether evasive of the clammy palms of melodrama.
BFI’s entrant into their Centenary of Chinese Cinema is not an entertaining film; it’s a graphically violent and emotionally exhausting experience – the very definition of a one-time-only deal. Back to 1942 is simply an overwhelming and timely achievement drenched in humanity that everyone should watch, if only it wasn’t lacking in political balance.