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This film I saw as part of my project “Chinese Box Office Wonders” – I took it on myself to watch the 10 most successful domestic Chinese movies of the last year. See here for the introduction and the list of films.

“Back to 1942”, based on Liu Zhenyun’s novel “Remembering 1942” and by now the Chinese nominee for the 2014 academy awards, was the only film on the list I was actually quite looking forward to seeing. The topic is a serious one, for a foreign observer also one maybe not well known. On a meta-level it is always interesting to see how Chinese film makers (can) cope with aspects of Chinese recent history that are less than flattering for the rulers at the time.

On that last point, I was quite impressed. Without indeed knowing too much about the Henan drought of 1942 that, in combination with the invasion of the Japanese troops, killed about 3 million people in just a couple of months. The drought and maybe even a locust plague did away with the harvest, but but what was decisive was the government’s unwillingness to send substantial personnel and food aid. The reason is spelled out: sometimes when your burden is too big, it’s better to cast off that burden, leaving the starving people to themselves, focusing the troop efforts on a war with the Japanese that is not even fought with great determination. Even when the order comes in to withdraw from the battle lines, the military is not used to help the refugees leave the province, but instead they scavenge and steal what’s left, saving their own hides wherever they can. Food aid is hampered by an abundance of officials who care about nothing as much as about the well-being of their own clientele, and the governor of the province – even though apparently well-intended –  seems unable to cut through the mess and help his people.

“Back to 1942” is a story of plenty frustration and not much hope. There are no heroes, only people who succumb earlier or later to the cruelties of their system, be that system politics, farming, or military. The story is told from the perspective of a Henan town or village that, as everybody else, abandons their homes to flee west, in a rather irrational move, rather than moving to the warmer and less war-ridden South (but as is explained: “This is what Henan people always did in times of trouble”). Landlords turn paupers, wives and children get sold, plenty die of exhaustion and starvation and the cruel cold. The most lucky one might be the one who find some pimp to host them in a brothel or a farmer who needs a new wife and carries her away. Interesting that for the men, there is less choice than for the women on whether and how to survive.

I commend the film for not pulling many stops. If you want the good guys to survive and the bad guys to die, a drought in wartime is not where you get that. Children are separated from their families and never seen again, or smothered to death by accident when chaos breaks out. The denial and incompetence of governmental sections is addressed, as is the complicated political landscape within which these decisions had to be made. This is not always told in the most subtle way (in one clumsy scene there heads of police, education and some other departments make a claim for receiving help first, rather than the general public of Henan), but given what kind of Chinese films addressing historic events I have recently seen, “Back to 1942” is almost of spectacular quality. The acting is also very solid, with Zhang Guoli as landlord Fan in the downward spiral, Chen Daoming plays “Generalissimo” Chiang Kai-Shek as tough leader who feels he needs to wall the pain about his people’s suffering behind a wall of discipline and administrative diligence. Adrian Brody and Tim Robbins pop up, the former at least with an role important to the plot development, as TIME reporter who alerts Chiang to the severity of Henan’s misery.

What I liked most, and what some international reviews oddly criticized, is the lack of pathos. This drama does not play out as structured accumulation of misery towards a resolution of death or survival, but – I think more credibly and realistically – as an effort in endurance, without a true prospect. The refugees go west until they die or are stopped. The government gets entangled in compromises without there being a Gordian knot in sight that could be cut. Individual fates start, diverge, converge, dissipate, until the world is not the same as it was before. This lack of clear and clean resolution is to be commended!

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