About 3 million people died in China’s Henan province in 1942 during a famine intensified by fighting between Japanese and nationalist Chinese forces. It’s a grim tale, and “Back to 1942” doesn’t pretend otherwise.
The story begins with an attempted rape and soon turns to the looting of a walled village by hungry peasants. When the first of the film’s many impressively staged crowd scenes ends, the settlement is destroyed. Its residents join other refugees, heading west toward, they hope, food.
The group’s patriarch is Fan (Zhang Guoli), a wealthy landlord who will watch his riches — and his family — evaporate. His pretty teenage daughter Xingxing (Fiona Wang) tries to keep a bit of her former life, bringing along a book and a kitten. Xingxing’s would-be protector is Shuanzhu (Zhang Mo), a family farmhand who has a crush on the girl.
As the refugees travel, they wrangle for grub, with both each other and Chinese troops. They’re periodically bombed and strafed by Japanese planes. There are many ways to die on this trip.
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Scripted by Liu Zhenyun from his memoir, “Remembering 1942,” the film includes a few historical personages. Gen. Chiang Kai-shek (Chen Daoming) considers pleas from Henan’s governor while waiting for the Allies — or perhaps Gandhi — to rescue China.
Time magazine reporter Theodore H. White (Adrien Brody) documents the carnage, outfitted with just a camera, some crackers and a donkey that will soon be somebody’s dinner.
Also representing Hollywood is Tim Robbins, playing an English-speaking Catholic priest. He blames the whole mess on the devil.
“Back to 1942” director Feng Xiaogang has been called China’s Steven Spielberg.
Like his biggest mainland hit “Aftershock,” a 2010 earthquake saga, “Back to 1942” shows the director’s mastery of chaotic spectacle, massed human motion and elegant camera movements. Both films demonstrate his tendencies toward glibness and sentimentality. Starvation and subtlety may be an unlikely pairing, but Feng’s historical horror show would actually be more moving if it were less openly emotional.