If the appropriate length of a film were calculated in proportion to the scope of its subject, all 144 minutes of Feng Xiaogang‘s “1942” (also known as “Back to 1942”), which played In Competition at the Rome Film Festival, would be wholly justified. While the Henan Famine of the early 1940s is not a well-known tragedy outside China, the scale of the suffering, death and displacement it caused simply boggles the mind, the numbers are so colossal. And for the most part, Feng does an impressive job of memorializing the 3 million dead; “1942” is not an unqualified success, but it did retain our interest and engagement across its multiple story lines and over its expansive running time.
The main narrative concerns Fan (Zhang Guoli), a wealthy landlord in Henan Province, which is already in the throes of poverty and famine, with crop failures, locust infestations and the ever-hungry machine of war all contributing to a terrible scarcity of food. Early on, we are thrown into an alien world; Chinese society in the 1940s seems to operate on such a medieval level of feudalism that the appearance of a bicycle came as a shock and seemed momentarily an anachronism. Fan may be the lord of this tiny fiefdom, but when a group of bandits, grown desperate by hunger, lay siege demanding food, events quickly spiral until the village is torched and the meagre stores raided. The inhabitants, including Fan and his family, set out on a long and merciless journey whose destination changes as city after town turns out not to be a place of refuge, but the site of more suffering. The long column of carts and wagons and stumbling, ragged pedestrians becomes shorter and sparser as hunger and cold claim lives, and soon, whole families. Landlord Fan himself is gradually brought low, stripped first of the trappings of relative wealth not by jealous citizens but by the Chinese army who are sweeping through the region on their way to the Japanese front and who commandeer everything they can get their hands on in the name of the war effort. But worldly good are not all Fan loses, one by one his family and friends are taken, some selling themselves into presumed prostitution if it means they’ll be fed, but most dying of sickness, lack of food, or in the terrifying Japanese bombing raids.
In fact the drawn-out agony of Fan’s personal tragedy might seem overblown or exaggerated, were it not again for the fact that the sheer numbers involved here have to mean that stories like his were all too common. But we do look away from him, once in a while. Against the backdrop of the immensity of the crisis, other stories are told. Adrien Brody‘s Time reporter visits the front lines and then plays a vital role in getting official China to finally recognize the need for aid to the affected area. Less narratively necessary, Tim Robbins also shows up for a few scenes as a Catholic priest in the region whose accent is almost as nomadic as the refugees. And the set pieces, when they come, are impressive and immense. Feng did not get to be China’s most commercially successful director without knowing how to shoot spectacular action, and the scenes of the bombing of the refugee column by the Japanese are visceral, shocking and bloody.
Some have complained of the film’s lack of emotional connection, and while there is a certain reserve, we felt it worked in its favor to restrain what could otherwise become histrionic. To us, a more serious issue has to do with our own lack of knowledge in this area: how much of the political side of the film should we take as propaganda, and how much fact? With the two U.S. stars clearly included to help sell the film overseas (Brody’s character is quite meta in that regard; his dedicated reporter is also trying to get the West to take notice of China) we can see the hand of manipulation in how positively these Westerners are portrayed. And of course, Japan is portrayed as the evil empire, but no more so than we have seen in American films before now. But was the story around Chiang Kai Shek (Chen Daoming) deliberatley designed to show the (not inhuman but certainly politically pragmatic) Generalissimo as the head of a corrupt system of bickering toadies who valued their positions and their status in the eyes of their superiors over the welfare of those they were supposed to represent? Because, of course, the more unjust and unfeeling a political system, the more heroic and justified the one that replaces it… We’d love to know what subtle messages, if any, the home audience read into the film.
But we’re getting off the point. Politics aside, there can be no doubt about the preventable deaths of millions of ordinary people during that ruinous famine. And “1942” while perhaps never packing the emotive gut punch of “Schindler’s List” or “Bridge on the River Kwai” nonetheless kept us engaged in an old-fashioned epic style, in a story of a monumental tragedy they we’re ashamed to say we knew little of beforehand. It is not perfect, but we’re glad it’s there to even partially redress our ignorance. [B]