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BACK TO 1942

After the poor harvests of 1940 and 1941 in China's Henan Province has been forced to use up its reserves. At war with and partly occupied by Japan, China is already in trauma when a major drought causes the failure of the 1942 wheat crop - and what little is produced is taken by authorities - mostly to feed the army and its horses. Political journalist and war correspondent Theodore H. White (Adrien Brodey) reports on the resulting famine in Time magazine, alerting the world to an unimaginable tragedy in which millions starve to death.

Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Disaster movie and war movie in one dramatic realisation of a dark chapter in China's history, Back to 1942 is epic in its intentions and its scope. Based on factual reports, Feng Xiaogang's big subject, big budget yet often intimate account puts the cinematic microscope to the famine that devastated Hunan province in 1942, when three million starved to death and 10 million fled. Wisely, Xiaogang chooses to concentrate on a small group, which effectively draws us into the story.

The technical achievements are impressive, and none more so that the heart wrenching bombing and strafing by the occupying Japanese forces which kills thousands of fleeing peasant families and retreating Chinese troops on the open road.

Small acts of kindness punctuate the story of hunger, loss, war and death. And faith is tested: Father Megan (Tim Robbins) has futile answers to the desperate questions: if the Lord knows this is happening, why does he do nothing? If it's the devil's will, why does the devil always win - and why believe? Good questions, but no satisfactory answers.

Adrien Body's character, the journalist Theodore H. White is not central to the story but it is central to how it was reported to the world. Brody does it well. The entire cast is outstanding - even through some clunky patches of dialogue here and there, notably in scenes with Tim Robbins. But the film doesn't rely on the usual criteria: this is a heartfelt work of national honour for Feng Xiaogang, a talented filmmaker whose film A World Without Thieves (2004) is one of my favourites of recent Chinese cinema.

I doubt that the catastrophe can ever be assuaged and there is no cathartic benefit here, but it is a crucial historical record and movies can play an important role in recording history in a way no other artform can.

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BACK TO 1942 (M)
(China, 2012)

CAST: Adrien Brody, Tim Robbins, Fan Xu, Guoli Zhang, Alec Su, Daoming Chen, Alfred Hsing, Hanyu Zhang, Yihong Duan, Xuejian Li, Mo Zhang

PRODUCER: Kuo-fu Chen, Zhongjun Wang, Zhonglei Wang

DIRECTOR: Feng Xiaogang

SCRIPT: Zhenyun Liu (novel by Zhenyun Liu)


EDITOR: Xiao Yang

MUSIC: Jiping Zhao

RUNNING TIME: 145 minutes


AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: November 29, 2012

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