Back to 1942 Blu-ray Review
Directed by Feng Xiaogang
Written by Liu Zhenyun
2012, Region A, 145 minutes, Not Rated
Blu-ray released on May 14th, 2013
Zhang Guoli as Fan
Adrien Brody as Theodore Harold White
Tim Robbins as Father
Xu Fan as Hua Zhi
Zhang Hanyu as An Ximan
Li Xuejian as Li Peiji
Zhang Mo as Shuan Zhu
Wang Ziwen as Xing Xing
The Han family is doing its best during the tough times of an ongoing drought. Rationing has become the new norm and everyone is working to keep the community afloat. When they are visited by a roaming gang looking for food, Han invites the strangers in for a meal, but he makes the poor decision to send word for outside assistance in removing these unwanted guests. His failed attempt is discovered and a riot breaks out leaving the property burned to the ground. With their remaining possessions loaded up in wagons, the Han family makes its way westward with countless refugees, in search of a new beginning.
Trouble follows as the Japanese army invades from the East and the government commandeers the limited supplies of grain for their troops. Corrupt officials re-sell the food destined to villagers back to the military for a quick profit while famine continues to spread across the region. There are growing instances of people selling family members for small amounts of food and, worse still, the animals have long disappeared and now there are reports of cannibalism. Whenever things appear at their worst for our heroes, something comes along and kicks them down another peg, the most egregious being the frequent strikes from Japanese airplanes.
The Yanjin drought of 1942 is one of the lowest points in Chinese history and provides the backdrop for this unbelievably bleak film. Director Feng Xiaogang (Aftershock) delivers an uncompromising look at the hardships endured by the Chinese during this dark period of the 20th century that left more than three million people dead. The epic narrative works both for and against the film, as there is so much going on that it is a bit disjointing when we leave one set of characters to visit another. It is most frustrating to see how long people will hold onto petty grievances when in dire situations, but it is precisely such behavior that escalates the tension when refugees in the same situation refuse to help each other.
Back to 1942 has elements similar to Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth, but without any of the happier moments. This family faces more and more turmoil with each passing day as they continue the endless pilgrimage across the unforgiving landscape. The famine challenges everyone’s moral compass as the threat of starvation becomes a growing reality on a daily basis. Our heroes are forced to make some unbelievably difficult decisions and then face the immediate consequences of their actions. Zhang Guoli gives an amazing performance as Fan, the once proud landlord faced with the destruction of his home and family. His attempt to retain any semblance of pride only introduces more hardship and by the end of the film his character has fully explored the concept of loss.
Adrian Brody (The Pianist) and Tim Robbins (Jacob’s Ladder) appear in generally thankless supporting roles. Brody portrays Theodore Harold White, the famed American journalist who tried to raise awareness of the famine and devastation he witnessed while in China. Robbins is a frustrated priest unable to provide for the many starving people that surround him. Both actors are a welcome addition to the film, but neither really contributes more than an additional layer of emotional impotence. Their performances are strong but these scenes ultimately take away from the immediacy of the central refugee characters.
While Back to 1942 tells an important piece of history, it does so through cinematic lenses, meaning that some elements come across as melodramatic. The movie gets in the way of the story, as the camera work is occasionally flashy and the musical score a bit too in-your-face with emotional swells. Xiaogang tries to tell an intimate story of personal loss within a grand landscape of national tragedy, but includes too many exterior elements that keep audiences at arm’s length from the central drama. The film is good, but it could stand to lose about a half hour of extraneous content.
Video and Audio:
Presented in the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, Back to 1942 receives a pretty amazing transfer, complete with natural flesh tones, well balanced levels of colors and black space. Contrast levels are free of artifacts while fine details remain sharp.
The film is given a DTS 5.1 HD Mandarin language mix that comes to life during the riot scene and the unexpected sequences of military action. A 2-channel Dolby Digital Mandarin mix is also provided, but stick with the more aggressive surround option. Dialogue remains free of distortion and English subtitles are provided in case you need them.
The original trailer is the only bonus feature.