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The grave side

Filmmaker Feng Xiaogang's new work, Back to 1942, chronicles the human drama of a devastating famine. It stars A-list actors, including Zhang Guoli. Photos provided to China Daily

Publication Date : 23-11-2012


Chinese director Feng Xiaogang, who's renowned for his year-end urban comedies, now has on offer a historical saga so tragic that tears run dry before the movie reaches a midpoint, at least for the characters. This comes in a season that was singlehandedly created by him to be mindlessly jovial - one that escapes from the heavy themes in life.

I have always suspected that, buried deep inside the comedic facade of this movie populist, is someone who not only strives for depth but also ponders some of the most puzzling philosophical questions that plague the country, such as why bad things keep happening to China. The superstar director has done a very good job hiding his gravitas - until now.

Long-neglected episode

Back to 1942 is about the famine that affected 30 million people in Henan province in the title year, killing one-tenth of the population. The natural disaster caused by locusts and drought was exacerbated by the imminent invasion of the Japanese army and something more.

The snaking and grinding multitude of emaciated figures is only half the sad story. The bigger tragedy is the unwillingness to help. The neighbouring province blocks fleeing refugees at gunpoint. Japanese invaders bomb them as they are mingled with retreating Chinese soldiers. The national army, instead of offering humanitarian assistance, imposes a levy of grains on an already-starving population - in the name of protecting them from invaders.

Screenwriter Liu Zhenyun and director Feng deliver excruciating scenes of human suffering, but most eye-popping is the depiction of behind-the-scenes manipulation by politicians, who place their own interests above the survival of ordinary people.

On the surface, nobody in the bureaucracy is a bad person: The governor of the province is constantly despondent over the fate of his people, and Chiang Kai-shek, the top leader, is aloof yet not exactly uncaring.

The most poignant details tend to be those seemingly unessential to the narrative: A group of province-level officials squabbling over the distribution of food aid and the pompous preparation to welcome visiting American dignitaries in the wartime capital. They provide a hint at the real causes of the catastrophe of biblical scale, which, in China, is often more manmade than true natural disasters.

The ensemble cast uses a lavish lineup of top-rated performers in roles not big but meaty. Zhang Guoli plays a rich landlord, who is reduced to the same dire straits as his farmers - in a rebuke of the oft-used class theory by which he is supposed to exploit those around him.

Grassroots law enforcement, personified by Fan Wei's character, is laughably enfeebled by the engulfing violence and misery around his court-on-the-move. Adrien Brody and Tim Robbins, both Oscar winners, espouse the hard choices that confront the press and the church.

Subtle touches of black humour seep into the tone, such as the landlord's daughter selling herself into prostitution and finding it hard to serve her first customer because she has filled her stomach with too much food and is unable to bend down - reminiscent of a moment in Zhang Yimou's To Live.

The movie is a fertile ground for political satire: At the end of the film, when the generalissimo asks the governor about the total toll of the famine, he is first given the official account, which is 1,062. Chiang matter-of-factly pushes for the real number, and, after a pause, the governor says: "Around 3 million".

The biggest irony is Chiang's surprise at the Japanese reaction. Chiang believes it a smart move to let the Japanese handle the hot potato of tens of millions of refugees. But the Japanese are cunning enough to bring them onto their side by providing food, a detail so tricky it is hinted at, rather than presented outright.

Feng also uses a visual analogy for the Japanese tactic: A Japanese officer uses a bayonet to feed a Chinese refugee and, when rejected, pushes the steamed bun and the bayonet through his mouth and skull.

Yearning for recognition

In terms of return on investment, Feng is indisputably the most profitable filmmaker in China. Some of his comedies even made the invested money back without selling a single ticket because he was so inundated with product placement offers he had to turn most of them down.

Despite his popular appeal, Feng is lacking in critical approval, especially from Euro-centric jurors and their Chinese followers. He is considered too lightweight in both subject matter and style. Winning the AIC Award for best cinematography and the Golden Butterfly Award at the Rome Film Festival, where Back to 1942 had its international premiere, has not really dispelled that perception.

Feng once bitterly joked that foreign critics complain they cannot understand his movies while Chinese movies even he has difficulty deciphering are happily embraced outside China. The wild popularity of almost all his movies with the Chinese audience, coupled with a cold shoulder from the Western cineaste circle, is partly caused by his use of melodrama and partly by the culture-specific undertones that fail to translate to those unfamiliar with a country in a whirlpool of change.

Unlike some of his contemporaries, Feng evolves - and in what I see as the right direction. In Cellphone (2003), he delivers more sociological substance in a comedy than most message movies offer. He is palpably scaling up to artistic heights, bringing his audience with him instead of stooping to pander to them.

While uneven, his body of work, at its best, aspires to Jane Austen-level sophistication, especially in the comedy of mannerism. His effort to branch out into weightier genres, except for The Banquet (2006), which I see as a Zhang Yimou imitation, has been largely successful. But will his vast audience follow him to a tale of consequence totally devoid of entertainment value?

Back to 1942 is nothing like Aftershock. It is not a three-handkerchief tearjerker; rather, it asks tough questions many filmgoers are either too young or too blase to face. But, for Feng, it is a project with which he can finally prove himself. With this movie, he will likely get the respect he has long deserved.


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