Monday, December 9, 2013

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: Back to 1942

This week I caught up with the Chinese Foreign Oscar submission - "Back to 1942". Set in China's Henan province in 1942, the film recounts the experiences of the villagers who were caught between a catastrophic drought and China's war with Japan. If it sounds dreary, that's because it is. This film is about the suffering of a large population of civilians due to the actions of people in power. Although the drought was an environmental issue, the lack of governmental aid seriously exacerbated the situation. Of course, the war played a big part in this but this story isn't primarily about the war itself. We never go to the front lines to see the combat. Instead, the plot focuses mostly on a few families from Henan who were affected by the disastrous situation.

With scarce food to eat and the impending doom of a Japanese attack, our protagonists become refugees, trekking hundreds of miles for salvation. Two families are specifically given the spotlight, allowing interesting character development and a strong understanding of the social implications. The Fan family is wealthy through land ownership and the drought effectively brings them down to the social status of everyone else. As the desparation creeps in, the plot gets a lot of mileage out of this deconstruction of social heirarchies. A happy ending seems unlikely for all, including the most resourceful. As such, the film becomes relentlessly devastating. Despite this, the film feels somewhat emotionally distant, which has bothered many critics. Their qualms are valid, since the film never milks the horrors for their inherent sentimentality. However, I thought it was a smart choice by the director. To explain, one must consider that the film is about long-term misery (even using intermittent captions to indicate the long journey from home), rather than acute moments of distress. This is further emphasized by the fact that the drought has already happened before the events of the movie take place. So in my interpretation, I understood it as the characters being too weak from starvation to outwardly mourn every loss. The actors do a great job with the emotional peaks they are give though, so it's not a question of acting ability. There's strong character development, but the director (Xiaogang Feng) has no time for hysterics in his plot.

The plight of the main characters command most of the attention, but other people exist in this script too. Notably there's the military leader Chiang Kai-shek, who shockingly downplays the severity of the drought and effectively sacrifices the people of Henan. It's a striking reminder of the unfortunate "collateral damage" that is too often disregarded in times of war. In addition, American actors Adrien Brody and Tim Robbins are also shoehorned into the story. Frankly, they are both disposable in the grand scheme, but Brody makes a strong impact. In fact, he threatens to take over the whole movie with his subplot as a TIME magazine correspondent fighting to save the displaced people. Unfortunately, the film summarily abandons him and disregards his importance. There's surely a separate film to made about that character.

Apart from story elements, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the phenomenal production values. The costumes, cinematography, sound and production design are so remarkable that I regret not being able to see it on the big screen. The film is worth it just for the top-notch visuals. It really gives you a strong sense of this period's atmosphere.

Overall, the plot mechanics of "Back to 1942" don't add much to the war epic genre, but the quality of the production is highly commendable. The struggle of the characters is suitably harrowing and the cast/crew capture this brilliantly. I certainly wouldn't want to literally go "back to 1942", but I appreciated this cinematic exploration of Chinese history.

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