Back To 1942 (2012) (Blu-ray film review).

Here we have ‘Back To 1942’, a war movie, so why is it being discussed on a Science Fiction website? Well, it contains scenes comprehensible in nature to anyone from the West where millions of people suffering starvation, drought, warfare and maladministration struggled for survival. Yet it happened in 1942 in China and the enforced march of masses of people, plus the degradations imposed upon them, defy imagination. If you’ve watched ‘The Road’ (2010) with Viggo Mortensen, which by all accounts was pretty harrowing, this stuff is a quantum leap worse.


Directed by Feng Xiogang and made in 2012, 70 years after the event, ‘Back To 1942’ is no small affair. Large in scope and epic in nature, it tries to encompass the tragedy which overtook the Hunan province of China. A terrible drought ruined harvests for that year, leaving the population starving but, on top of that, the war against the Japanese invaders continued unabated. This is a war that had been going on since 1937.

The main character is Master Fan (Zhang Guoli), a wealthy rural landlord with a family and a large number of retainers. Although he has food, this is all taken away when a large band of foragers invade his village. In the ensuing battle, his son is killed and with the rest of his family he has no alternative but to take to the road as a refugee looking for assistance. This begins a long and futile search for salvation.

Mandarin, English and Japanese are the languages employed in the movie. Adrien Brody plays an American photographer Theodore White, determined to capture the scenes of tragedy. Japanese bombers kill without mercy and their plight is made worse by the harsh Chinese winter. The American tries his best to get the attention of the authorities, mainly General Chang Kai-shek, pleading for food for the starving. Eventually some is forthcoming but the prevarication of authorities and the corruption of officials prevents most of this from reaching the sufferers. The Japanese are relentless and treat the native Chinese as third class citizens, fit for hard labour or slaughter.

The front cover of the Blu-ray depicts the tragedy of the refugees and, sadly, since this date, refugees continue to be a problem throughout the world. Nothing has happened to change the situation. Master Fan, despite being continually beaten back, somehow manages to struggle on. He loses virtually everything but retains a sense of dignity. Brody’s portrayal of the photographer is excellent. This is no cameo role! He plays a man determined to get to the truth, with scant regard to his own safety, but he is fighting against not only the Japanese but the bureaucracy from China and the USA.

As in the West, where most of the Second World War took place on the Eastern front, many are not aware that the largest campaigns of the war against Japan were fought in China. There it lasted for eight years and millions of people were killed. It was a war which soaked up much of the Japanese resources, fighting on a vast scale where the battles were largely unknown to the majority of British and Americans. With many examples of large-scale chaos taking place throughout Chinese history, it is easy to see why governments since the war have been ultra-cautious about a breakdown of authority. They take the path of control rather than outright democracy which could lead to ruination and tragedy. In fact, modern China is somewhat like ancient Greece in that any leader who gets too big for his boots is ostracised. In Greece, it was exile but in China it is public disgrace and humiliation. Maybe that’s why they rotate leaders on a 10 year basis. While Chairman Mao is revered, maybe they would not like another one!

This is a Blu-ray which gives an insight not only into Chinese history but into the China of today. It depicts a momentous event in history and, watching it, promotes a little more understanding about why things have to be as they are in China. It is a pot which was boiling but allowed to cool down gradually rather than by lifting the lid to let everything explode.

The Blu-ray comes with a host of extras, which is what you would expect from the BFI and they are intelligent and interesting extras at that. Exclusive to the Blu-ray are two documentaries, one about 1942 itself and another about the people of 1942. In addition, there is a feature about the making of the movie and another about the actors and people involved. Making the movie was an endurance test because the actors had to work in freezing conditions, sometimes -20°C in the Chinese winter and starved themselves to look the part. Additionally, they had to learn the Hunan dialect which was another difficult task.

The complexities involved in making this movie were enormous and varied. Thousands of actors were used and the organisation skills of the director and the others must have been phenomenal. ‘Back To 1942’ was so difficult to make that it’s unlikely you’ll ever see anything like this again so I would take the opportunity to watch it when you can. Definitely recommended.

Rod MacDonald

February 2015

(pub: British Film Institute. 1 blu-ray disk 145 minute film and extras. Price: £19.99 (UK))

languages: English, Japanese and Chinese

cast: Adrien Brody and Zhang Guoli,

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