BACK TO 1942. Starring Adrien Brody, Tim Robbins, Fan Xu and Guoli Zhang. Directed by Feng Xiaogang. 145 minutes. Rated MA 15+ (String violence, some nudity and a sex scene).
In recent years, Chinese cinema has been going back to the war with Japan in the 1930s and 1940s. There have been several moving films about the siege of Nanking, especially 2009’s City of Life and Death. The 2012 Chinese film, The Flowers of War, in collaboration with the US, included Christian Bale as part of the story. Such collaborations make the film more accessible for American audiences, by including Adrien Brody as Time Magazine war correspondent Theodore White and Tim Robbins (to far less effective extent, including an unrecognisable accent) as a Catholic priest dispensing pious reflections.
Director Xiogang Feng has made some impressive films including Wedding Banquet (a variation on Hamlet) and the historical film, The Assembly. This time, with a large budget, he recreates the famine in Henan province which sent millions on to the roads as starving refugees, three million of them dying. This is the backdrop to Japanese occupation and the attempts of the Chinese military under the leadership of Chiang-Kai-Chek to defeat Japan.
For audience identification as the film moves from military headquarters to American consulate and Japanese officials, the screenplay focuses on a family and its sufferings. Master Fan is wealthy and has grain as the famine begins to bite. He presides over a family that is wilful and arrogant. Challenged by local bandits, a fight breaks out which leads to everyone taking to the roads.
There are some extremely harrowing scenes, some horrifying deaths and two very powerful and frightening sequences of Japanese planes dropping bombs on the refugees causing callous injuries and deaths. By the end of the film, the audience is quite vividly aware of the toll of starvation on body and spirit.
The film also shows the initial ineffectiveness of the Chinese government, underestimating the famine and hesitating to help – food was necessary to keep the troops alive and fighting, so civilians were deemed expendable. Ultimately Chiang-Kai-Chek tries to do something but the Japanese have advanced too far.
Adrien Brody has a good role as the war correspondent, sharing the miseries of the road and photographing some of the savagery which he presents to the Generalissimo and ultimately publishes to alert Chinese and American readers. Tim Robbins plays a missionary who welcomes the correspondent but also has to deal with a Chinese fellow priest who has taken a faith stance (a cause rather than faith as he preaches to the refugees) and who becomes disillusioned by the bombings. His questioning of God and non-intervention echoes the desperation of Master Fan as he loses everyone and everything – except finding a little girl by her dead mother. The narrator tells us that she survived to be his mother.
The narration offers moments of questioning as to why these stories should not be left in the past. Watching the film with no appreciable knowledge beforehand of the events reminds us that we must not forget the past but must learn from it.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out November 29, 2012.