The recent release of “Iron Man 3″ brought attention to a new trend of tailoring a film to the *ahem* needs of another country (read: China). Several non-essential scenes/in-film adverts were shot with Chinese celebrities to better sell the film in that region. From what I understand, the Chinese government was happy with the additions and the citizens were equally tlled. Well in an attempt to broaden international appealfor his latest film, “Back to 1942,” Chinese director Feng Xiaogang did something similar: he threw in some American stars. The film, available now on Blu-Ray and DVD from Well Go USA, is an historical drama featuring the likes of Adrian Brody and Tim Robbins in the midst of one of China’s darkest periods. No, this isn’t a special stateside cut, but could the inclusion of US actors help bring in US dollars?
Feng Xiaogang is a pretty big director with another historical disaster movie, “Aftershock” under his belt. That film grossed more than $100 million at the Chinese box office and it’s apparent that he’s trying to go bigger this time around. “Back to 1942″ brings us to the Henan province during a time of war, government corruption and famine. Fan (Zhang Guoli) is a wealthy landowner who’s estate is burned to the ground after an unfortunate encounter with a group of starving farmers. Having lost everything, he and his family, a servant and a tenant join a caravan of other refugees heading to the Shaanxi province in hope of survival. While Fan has more food than most, his supplies dwindle and his family fades amid the starving. To make matters worse, Chang Kai-shek’s (Chen Daoming) government is choosing to allow the hoardes of starving civilians on this exodus to be slaughtered by the attacking Japanese military. The idea is to kill off the burden the strengthen the rest. In the meantime,Theodore White (Adrian Brody), an American journalist with Time magazine witnesses the atrocity first-hand and tries to draw attention to the plight of the people, while an Italian(?) priest, Father Morgan (Tim Robbins) urges all to keep their faith in the devil’s presence.
“Back to 1942″ is an absolutely breathtaking film. Grand, sweeping landscapes go on for days, while intense action scenes come crashing in, shaking the audience to their core. The special effects are outstanding, with most appearing to be practical. When the filmmakers resort to using CG, like when tracking a bomb from a Japanese warplane, through a mid-air cluster, then onto a crowd of innocents, the result is every bit as good as a Hollywood blockbuster. Costuming and set design are equally flawless, bringing us back to the time of the second World War. Feng Xiaogang is clearly a master with visuals.
But there are troubles.
Liu Zhenyun’s screenplay, an adaptation of his novel “Remembering 1942″ is a little less than gripping. While historically accurate, I’m sure – the actual story of Fan and his family is a bit heavy handed, playing out like a losing game of “The Oregon Trail.” It’s almost like the filmmakers were trying desperately to siphon emotion from the audience, making the picture feel less organic than it should. At times, “Back to 1942″ just gets too manipulative, like in Tim Robbins’ God awful (no pun intended) scene where his priest character explains that these hardships are not the work of The Lord. I’m not sure what country his accent is from, but it’s unusual enough to distract from an exchange so uninspired, it may have been stolen from an episode of “Dark Shadows”. The mere presence of Adrian Brody feels like a PR stunt, with his performance feeling phoned-in and somewhat disconnected from the rest of the movie.
Not being able to speak a lick of Cantonese, it may not be fair to judge the performances of the main cast, but a solid actor can transcend any language barriers moving his/her audience with only raw emotion. I never quite felt that anybody in the film was that good. That said, how can you not pity those who went through such a horrible ordeal? It’s as if you showed a foreigner a film about 9/11 or The Great Depression. Their built-in reaction may not be as strong as, say, a New Yorker’s, but to not appreciate the suffering of these people would be inhuman.
“Back to 1942″ scores a solid 2 out of 4 angels. Solid in visual style, despite lacking a little in substance, you can’t argue that this is a well-crafted piece of cinema. If you’re a history buff… especially international history, you’ll find it an entertaining flick albeit a bit of a downer. If you’re looking for something like “Platoon” this isn’t the one for you. But much like “United 93″ or “Schindler’s List” show us, while history can be uncomfortable, that doesn’t mean it should be buried. For that reason Feng Xiaogang succeeds in his mission: after watching this movie, you won’t forget 1942.