Blu-ray review: Back to 1942

Starring: Guoli Zhang, Adrien Brody
Director: Xiaogang Feng

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Anyone looking for signs that China might be developing a conscience to match its economic might is liable to be heartened by this soul-searching epic, which flings back the veil on an episode which has to count as a national disgrace. It’s World War II, and while the central government is concerned with repelling a Japanese invasion, in the remote Henan Province the enemy is hunger. A devastating famine strikes, and 30 million people take to the road, in the depths of winter, in search of their next meal.

Among them is Master Fan and his family. Once wealthy and respected, they’re now forced to lump in their lot with their social inferiors and nibble tree bark to stave off starvation. A beloved cat goes in the cooking pot, while their fellow refugees start selling their womenfolk to earn a few pints of millet. There’s no help from the high-ups – the government responds by dragging its feet and trying to cover up the disaster, and the army abandons the refugees to the Japanese on purpose in hopes it will slow their advance. When relief does come, it’s siphoned off by greedy businessmen and corrupt officials.

Presumably in an effort to appeal to western audiences, Hollywood stars Tim Robbins and Adrien Brody are roped in for small supporting roles, but the film really doesn’t need them. Shot on location in sub-zero temperatures over a 5 month period, with a crew of 600 and a cast of over a 1000, Back to 1942 is a hugely impressive piece of work, with some brilliant set-pieces – scenes of the refugees desperately clambering onto a passing train, and being strafed by Zeros – and staggering crane shots. Watching it on Blu-ray, you can practically feel the cold through Lu Yue’s panoramic cinematography. At the same time, it’s leaner, quieter, more introspective and less histrionic than one might expect, with a persistent vein of dark humour. “It’s a retrograde manoeuvre,” an officer snaps tetchily when Fan asks him why he’s haring off with his tail between his legs, and there’s a blackly serio-comic interlude about an attempt to steal a donkey which goes badly wrong.

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It’s also buttressed by some excellent performances, especially by Guoli Zhang as Fan, a man who loses everything on the road except his dignity and who grows, by the end, into an almost Lear-like figure – his final scenes are as touching as anything you’ll see in modern cinema. Yet for all its suppressed fury, Back to 1942 is uplifting rather than depressing, because it imbues its characters with such warmth and humanity, even when they’re being treated like animals. What it feels like, at times, is a Chinese Dr Zhivago, and you can imagine director Xiaogang Feng making a fine adaptation of Boris Pasternak’s masterpiece.

9/10

EXTRAS
Well over an hour of featurettes. Individually, they’re quite fragmentary, but taken as a whole you learn a lot about the gruelling circumstances of the making of the film and the sheer scale of the behind-the-scenes operation.
6/10

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