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Filmmaker Feng Xiaogang met the author Liu Zhenyun in 1993, when his original memoir of the famine was first published and decided that he needed to experience the journey of the refugees depicted in the story at first hand. For three months he travelled with his scriptwriting team from Henan to Shaanxi, and to Chongqing, interviewing many people along the route who had survived the famine: the result is the epic 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. 

Feng Xiaogang is China's most successful film director. In January 2009, he received international attention as the first Chinese filmmaker to cross one billion yuan ($146.5m) at the domestic box office. Feng became popular among Chinese audiences for his unique comedies in the 1990s exploring the dreams and aspirations of regular Chinese people. His representative works at this time are "The Dream Factory", "Be There or Be Square" and "Sorry, Baby".

In 2000, at the height of his success, he changed direction with breakthrough divorce drama "Sigh". In the following years, he made action drama "A World Without Thieves", ambitious palace thriller "The Banquet" that was based on Shakespeare's Hamlet, and the epic war drama "Assembly" that demonstrated his ability to direct complicated action scenes as well as powerful melodrama. In 2008, his sophisticated and modern romantic comedy "If You Are the One" broke box office records to become the most successful Chinese film of all time. With "Aftershock", Feng brought together his technical abilities and his understanding of the human condition to create something startlingly new for Chinese language cinema.

“Most of the actors had never heard of the famine,” says Feng Xiaogang, “which is a hidden episode in China's modern history. And none were aware of its sheer scale. I've test-screened the film now to different audiences. Young people - in their teens and twenties - react most strongly to the film and have said that it changed the opinion they have of their grandparents. And it has made them rethink their own country's history. This is what I set out to achieve. Apart from the story touching the audience, I want to give them something to think about.”

Although there had been intermittent fighting since 1931 when Japan invaded and annexed Manchuria the SinoJapanese War officially broke out in 1937 when Japanese forces occupied Beijing, Shanghai and Nanjing. After losing the city of Wuhan in 1938, China's ruling Nationalist party relocated the country's political, economic and military capital further inland to Chongqing. 

It was only in December 1941, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, that the West officially declared war on Japan. The following year, in 1942, China became a major front in World War II. In recognition of China's perceived importance in the fight against the Japanese, the Nationalist party's Chiang Kaishek was named Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in China. 

Famines have been a constant plight in China's history, killing tens of millions during the 20th century alone. In 1942, the devastating famine in Henan province was particularly brutal, exacerbated by the greed, corruption and incompetence of the Nationalist party who had imposed harsh taxes and seized grain to feed the army. In addition to causing the deaths of three million people, the famine created tens of millions of refugees.


Zhang Guoli as Landlord Fan
Despite Landlord Fan's wealth and connections with his own property, farmland and servants the famine leaves him destitute and near death. After his home is destroyed in a fire brought upon by starving farmers his family flees the famine on a Horse drawn cart. Actor Zhang Guoli describes his character as a tragic figure. "When I first read the script, it was so moving and powerful. [Director] Feng Xiaogang has created something truly unique that will resonate with all audiences."

Adrien Brody as Theodore H. White
After graduating in Chinese history from Harvard in 1938, Theodore H. White traveled to Chongqing where he was hired as Time magazine's China correspondent. He wrote about the corruption and incompetence within the ruling Nationalist party that exacerbated the famine. Adrien Brody says, "The 1940s was one of the most miserable decades in human history. I have acted in three films set during the period, including The Pianist in which I played a victim of the Nazis. At the same time, millions of people were suffering in China."

Zhang Mo as Shuanzhu
Shuanzhu is a simple farmhand who has served Landlord Fan for ten years. He is secretly in love with Fan's daughter Xingxing. As the months go by, Shuanzhu forms a strong bond with Fan who promises that they'll be landlords together after the war. When Xingxing is sold to a brothel, Shuanzhu finds consolation in the arms of tenant Huazhi who marries him so that her own children will have a father. Zhang Mo says, "I play a typical Chinese farmer in his twenties, who transforms from an immature child into a man."

Fiona Wang as Xingxing
Xingxing is the proud daughter of Landlord Fan. She's a modern young woman who yearns to join her classmates fighting the Japanese on the front line. She brings her schoolbooks and a kitten with her on the journey to flee the famine representing knowledge and innocence but later burns the book to keep warm while the cat is made into a bowl of soup. Fiona Wang describes Xingxing as a "strong girl who is not afraid to face any danger, finally throwing away all her pride, even selling herself to a brothel."

Xu Fan as Huazhi
Huazhi is the wife of a tenant of Landlord Fan. She has been having regular trysts with Fan's son in exchange for millet grain. She and her family including her infant son and daughter flee the famine together with Landlord Fan, packing her bright red wedding dress to bring her luck on the road. Ever practical, with an endless supply of putdowns, she is soon selling sexual favors to Shuanzhu for crackers. Xu Fan describes Huazhi as "a strong mother who will do anything for her children".

Zhang Hanyu as Reverend Simeone
Reverend Simeone is a Christian preacher with a blind faith in God. He believes that God will protect the faithful, praying as Japanese bombs drop around him. But it is Landlord Fan and not God that saves Simeone from the explosions. As he witnesses more deaths, Simeone's own faith is tested and he visits Thomas Megan for counseling, who puts the blame on the Devil. Simeone eventually goes mad with the realization that he has been exploiting the famine just as much as the slave traders and other profiteers.

Tim Robbins as Father Thomas Megan

A Catholic priest with his own church diocese outside Luoyang. He is more pragmatic and cynical than Reverend Simeone, blaming God's deficiencies on the Devil. He feeds refugees on the condition that they each bury a corpse, so as to minimize disease after the winter. He refuses to take care of a baby that is given to the Church, believing that they must not set a precedent. Tim Robbins said, "It's a very layered story that talks about the famine from many different angles. The story also shows the beautiful side of humanity."

Chen Daoming as Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek
After losing Beijing, Shanghai and Nanjing to the Japanese in the early months of the Sino-Japanese War, Chiang has retreated to Chongqing and is dragging out the length of the war as he waits for the West to intervene. Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and America's formal declaration of war against Japan, Chiang Kai-shek has been appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Forces in China. Meanwhile he focuses on his position on the world stage, arranging to visit Gandhi in India, as his countrymen starve from the devastating famine and his party's ineffective response.

Published November 29, 2012

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