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Back to 1942(2012)
A North Henan landlord embarks on a pilgrimage to Shaanxi province during the 1942 famine, struggling to survive as war with Japan looms on the horizon. His house beset by starving villagers, Landlord Fan endeavors to calm the crowd by preparing a feast. But his house is burned down in the chaos, prompting Fan, his teenage daughter Xing Xing, his servant Shuang Zhu, and his tenant Hua Zhi on a treacherous journey south. Along the way, encounters with an American journalist, a judge, and a priest who has lost his faith reveal the true depth of the despair that grips the country. But the hardships along the way prompt Fan to make some devastating sacrifices that leave him a broken man.
For more about Back to 1942 and the Back to 1942 Blu-ray release, see Back to 1942 Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on May 7, 2013 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.0 out of 5.
Starring: Zhang Guoli, Adrien Brody, Tim Robbins
Director: Xiaogang Feng
» See full cast & crew
Back to 1942 Blu-ray Review
The war on hunger.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, May 7, 2013
My wife's parents come out to Oregon every year to spend a few months with us (well, mostly with her, but I digress). This year they ended up staying at a high end retirement community that had separate apartments which were rentable for people just like my in-laws who were coming in for a few weeks and who didn't want a long term commitment. A nice side benefit to this arrangement is that as "residents", my in-laws were able to take advantage of all the activities this place afforded the people who live there rear round. My father-in-law was chuckling one night over dinner at our place and asked me to guess what movie was being shown at the retirement community that night, one that he and my mother-in-law had deigned not to stay to watch. Since we had just been discussing a certain recent Oscar winner, I proffered, "Argo"? "No," my father-in-law laughed, and then paused for comedic effect. "The Good Earth! That not exactly what you'd call a new film". The activities director of this place could have waited a few weeks and offered a much more contemporary film that has some of the same themes as Pearl S. Buck's immortal masterpiece, for Back to 1942, though placed a little later in the 20th century than The Good Earth, deals with the same disturbing consequences of famine and hardship that made so much of the Buck work so unforgettable. The film starts with what sounds like an archival recording of who I must assume is Chiang Kai-Shek (unfortunately the film provides no identifier for the uninitiated) exhorting the Chinese people to stay strong in the face of the challenges of the Second Sino-Japanese War which Chiang tells his people has now become part of the global conflict of World War II. Chiang urges the Chinese to keep the faith now that allies like the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union are getting involved in the fight (and how fascinating to think of the Soviet Union and China being lumped in as allies of the United States, considering the roiling political events which were to follow after the war.) It's in this tumultuous context that Back to 1942 plays out, detailing both the personal struggles of one Chinese family as well as injecting a few real life figures into the mix. The film has scope, to say the least, but it also lacks focus, which may prevent it from being easily accessible to Western audiences.
One of the things that made The Good Earth so unforgettable is how it personalized vast epochal changes in Chinese history through the lens of one family's experience. Back to 1942 attempts to do the same thing, in fits and starts anyway, but it goes off on a number of tangents that tend to emphasize the epic sweep of the story rather than any personal impact. Therefore a lot of the film plays like a diorama rather than a drama. The main focus here is the family of Fan (Zhang Guoli), a man who has managed to keep his little fiefdom relatively flush as a devastating famine has swept over Henan Province. When some bandits show up one night to demand food, Fan attempts to reason with them, but a misguided effort to bring in outside help backfires and soon there's a horrifying riot that ends up killing Fan's son and which leaves his walled compound in a burning heap of ashes. Fan decides to try to get to safer ground to the west, both to find more food but also to avoid the encroaching Japanese who are invading from the east.
The Good Earth made a potent point that famine was the "great equalizer", as people who had achieved a certain amount of wealth were suddenly reduced to begging for even a scrap of food. Back to 1942 does somewhat the same thing by having Fan's family eventually band together with a much poorer family, one which seems perhaps better equipped to handle the hardships. Both sets of families, along with hundreds of others, set out westward, as text titles announce how far away from "home" they are getting.
Had Back to 1942 stayed with these two families, things might have been a bit more emotionally visceral. But perhaps due to the exigencies of marketing this film to a global audience, Adrien Brody is on hand as iconic Time reporter Theodore White (for those who don't recognize his name offhand, he went on to write the many Making of the President books). White is looking into reports of the millions who are perishing due to the famine and is attempting (unsuccessfully) to get Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek (Chen Daoming) to stop trying to divert all available grain to his troops. Also appearing in a cameo is Tim Robbins as Father Thomas Megan who is also trying in his own small way to tend to those affected by both the famine and the Japanese attacks.
Back to 1942 is one of those films that seems to have everything that money can buy, and yet which fails to connect, at least for the most part, with the human emotions that underlie all of these tragic events. That changes, at least for a moment or two, in the closing few minutes of the film. Fan has lost virtually everything he thought he had, some things due to external forces and others due to his own desperate decision making, but suddenly he's confronted with a palpable sign of the overwhelming tragedy confronting all Chinese during this era. Something within the troubled man finally snaps, and while he may not have anything approaching a happy ending in the offing, he at least is resolute to keep journeying on toward whatever tomorrow brings.
Back to 1942 Blu-ray, Video Quality
Back to 1942 is presented on Blu-ray courtesy of Well Go USA with an AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 2.39:1. This is a curiously bland looking high definition presentation, one that offers very good fine object detail but which has been desaturated to a point where it almost seems like it's a "colorized" black and white film. The CGI here is kind of middling as well, looking pretty soft and offering unconvincing animation at times, especially when it comes to things like flames. The film is best when it offers extreme close-ups in decent light, but a lot of the film takes place in dark and dank confines, which prevents the image from really popping in any overwhelming way.
Back to 1942 Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Back to 1942 features a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix in the original Mandarin. (I should point out that I am going by what Well Go USA has listed on the Blu-ray and this label has made errors before in misidentifying Cantonese as Mandarin. As I am not a native Chinese speaker, I must defer to this information until or unless a native Chinese speaker can tell me otherwise.) Fidelity is excellent throughout this track and surround activity is also quite consistent. The film has a nice balance of boisterous sequences, including the riot in the opening moments as well as a major Japanese attack later in the film, but it also ventures into much more quiet, dialogue driven episodes that are also presented cleanly and effectively. The film has some requisite LFE but is fairly reserved overall in its use of low end effects.
Back to 1942 Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Back to 1942 Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Back to 1942 has many compelling elements, especially for those who are interested in the history of World War II and/or China, but it really fails to connect on a fundamental heart level, at least until the closing moments. There are some huge set pieces here which will probably satisfy epic lovers (despite some less than fantastic CGI elements), and the basic story is certainly worthy of attention, but there's a strange distance to this film that keeps many of the characters at arm's length rather than making them living, breathing people with whom the audience can identify and (hopefully) sympathize. This is a film that will probably appeal most to those who don't really mind if there isn't much human interest and who prefer epics that deal in huge historical events in a generic way that offers big brushstrokes but few really nuanced shadings.
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Back to 1942 Blu-ray, News and Updates
• Back to 1942 Blu-ray - March 26, 2013
Texas-based independent distributors Well Go USA have announceD that they will release on Blu-ray director Feng Xiao-Gang's Back to 1942 a.k.a Remembering 1942 (2012), starring Gordon Cheung, Zhang Han-Yu, Xu Fan, Fiona Wang, Adrian Brody, and Tim Robbins. The ...
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