Review: BACK TO 1942 Epically Documents an Important Chapter in Modern History

Feng Xiaogang is perhaps China's most clever commercial film director. Reportedly having never directed a film that failed to make a handsome profit, he has had a string of huge local box office hits in recent years, including 2007's Assembly, 2008's If You Are The One and 2010's Aftershock. In fact, Aftershock became China's all-time highest grossing film upon its release; a record it held until the release of Jiang Wen's Let the Bullet Fly. Now with his new film Back to 1942, Feng looks set to reclaim that title. 

Back to 1942 is based on a novel by Liu Zhenyun, also credited as the film's screenwriter, and tells the true story of the devastating Henan Province famine that claimed over three million lives in 1942, a time when China was in the middle of a war with Japan. The tragic events have provided the perfect material for director Feng to create a blockbuster film containing elements previously used in his films with great success, like a devastating natural disaster (as seen in Aftershock) and thrilling battle scenes (as seen in Assembly). The film's criticisms of Chiang Kai Shek's regime will likely help draw some strong support from the Chinese government, which will no doubt help its local box office prospects. Also featuring a strong cast consisting of a number of top Chinese actors, like Xu Fan, Zhang Guoli, Chen Daoming and Zhang Hanyu, it is almost a certainty that the film will become a major box office hit, in China at least.   

This time, however, the director seems to have set his eyes on the international market as well. Amongst the large cast are two big-name Hollywood actors, Tim Robbins and Adrien Brody. Robbins plays a Catholic priest and sadly, his character does not really have a key role in the film. Brody has a more substantial role, playing Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Theodore White, who gave an eyewitness account of the events during the time of war and famine. Also likely to help draw the attention of international audiences are the film's epic scope and top notch production value. Many of the scenes, like the ones showing the bombing attacks by the Japanese army, are massive in scale and impressive on a technical level.     

Having a running time of almost 2 and a half hours, however, it would have certainly benefited from some trimming. After witnessing scenes after scenes of suffering and loss, and injuries and deaths, it is inevitable that viewers will become somewhat desensitized. As a result, the film is unable to generate as much emotional impact as it should considering its subject matter. Nevertheless, Back to 1942 has documented an important chapter in modern history, one that is well worth remembering and learning from.  



BREAKING: Back to 1942 has just been awarded the Golden Butterfly Award and A.I.C. Award for Best Cinematography at Rome Film Festival.


Back to 1942 will be released by China Lion in Australia (Sydney: Event George St, Event Macquarie, Burwood, Hurstville; Melbourne: Cinema Nova Carlton; Brisbane: BCC Garden City Mt Gravatt; Adelaide: Palace Nova Eastend) and New Zealand on November 29; and the US ( LA: AMC Atlantic Times Square, AMC Puente Hills, Cinemark Century Stadium XD; NYC: AMC Empire 25, AMC Village VII, San Francisco: Century 20 Great Mall and XD, Century 25 Union City Theatres, AMC Mercado 20; Seattle: AMC Pacific Place 11 (Note: Starts Dec 7); Washington D.C.: AMC Loews Rio Cinema 18) and Canada (Toronto: Cineplex Odeon Yonge & Dundas 24, SilverCity Richmond Hill, Cineplex Odeon Eglinton Town Centre Cinemas, Cineplex First Markham Place Cinemas; Vancouver: Cineplex Odeon International Village Cinemas, SilverCity Riverport Cinemas, SilverCity Coquitlam) on November 30. 
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  • Kwenton Bellette

    Great review Hugo. I feel that the film got sadder as their suffering and never-ending hell of the situation they were in got dragged out. The film balanced the different players in the story so well, infuses each role with humanity and conflict. The film basically goes to great lengths to show that there were no right decisions during this period, it was such a disaster of a situation and despite the corruption not much could really be done to help the refugees without majorly affecting other things. The two westerners were not entirely necessary, but I feel they were not just there to be hooks for int. audiences, they still had a point and nothing felt shameless or sensationalized.

  • Spitoonlegionaire

    Thank you, China, for yet another nationalistic propanganda. Man, being ethnic Chinese myself, I just can't get enough of these films constantly reminding us how great and glorious we Chinese were. Now if it only weren't the the natural disasters, the Japanese invasion, the Kuomingtang b**stards, and them tricky foreign gwailow devils. But of course it's never the Communist Party's fault, or the mass' misguided sense of cultural superiority. So, ah, yeah, thanks. (What happened to all the 5th generation directors who used to criticize the government and the people's ignorance? Oh yeah, they sold out.)

  • Kwenton Bellette

    You are wrong in this case, Back to 1942 thankfully is really unbias highlighting the constant corruption and terrible decisions that were made during this period, it has 0 communist propaganda and focuses on human nature and the absolute clusterf*ck situation of the Henan drought. It has soul and a great message, balances personal, political, beauracratic and historical perfectly, a really great movie that puts crap like Founding of Great Republic to shame.

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