As a spur of the moment desperate attempt to get out of the heat last week, I invited my Mum to see a movie with me called ‘Back in 1942’.when she asked me what it was about my response was a somewhat vague “It’s a subtitled Chinese film about people fleeing their homes due to conditions of extreme famine while the Japanese were attacking the Chinese provinces in WWII. It’s likely to be really long and depressing and full of human suffering, but at least it will get us out of this heat for a few hours.” Well, with a sales pitch like that, how could she refuse?
The film takes place in Henan province during one of China’s darkest episodes and worst human disasters of the 20th century. The humanitarian crisis is caused by extended drought and then exacerbated by the subsequent war with Japan affecting the region and of course inevitable government corruption hampering the miniscule relief efforts as officials refuse to report or accept the sheer scale of the famine induced disaster.. Directed by Feng Xiaogang, he kind of smacks you around the head with a tonne of bricks and leaves you with no uncertain impression of just how desperate the refugees fleeing the famine are and the extents to which they will entertain to obtain grain for their families and themselves. This movie packs plenty of dark and completely gut wrenching punches as it drives home a message of personal and collective human suffering on a scale that is absolutely unimaginable to most comfortable Westerners.
The narrative follows the stoical Master Fan (Zhang Guoli), a previously wealthy landowner in Yanjin county who loses everything he has, including his son, and joins the seemingly never ending stream of refugees trudging out of Henan Province in search of grain and food. With him is his entire household, consisting of his ageing mother, his wife, his pregnant daughter in law, his beautiful teenage daughter and a stalwartly loyal family servant. While better stocked and equipped for the endeavour, Master Fan finds himself travelling the same road as the peasants who used to be his tenants and as starvation and treacherous conditions affect all travellers alike, and the class barriers and respectful manner he is accustomed to is rapidly stripped away and he eventually finds himself as destitute as the other fleeing citizens amid news that that the nationalist army is potentially going to retreat and abandon 30 million Chinese to the advancing Japanese armies.
All around, people are starving. They’re eating donkeys; stealing grain, they’re selling their children to ‘factories’ (brothels) for grain and eating ground tree bark to stay alive. With desperation comes violence, and when an avaricious thief accidentally falls into a large cauldron of boiling water, the camera leaves the scene, but the implication is that the starving refugees won’t hesitate to eat him too.
Back to 1942 has a cast of thousands, trudging ever onwards through the barren wasteland of famine and locust ravaged China. The constant stream of downtrodden, starving displaced and unwanted people – an unwanted drain on resources during the Governments’ wartime agenda – makes for a complicated drama with scenes of familial sacrifice, uncertainty, a foreboding sense of impending death for all and under the constant threat of air strikes from the Japanese as Chinese military commandeer carts and supplies and intermingle with the refugees.
As depressing as this film sounds it is also a story of resilience and endurance of the human spirit. No matter what was thrown at these refugees, many of them simply did not know how to give up and they persevered when there was no end in sight. It depicts a horrific period of history where up to three million refugees are estimated to have died while fleeing the famine and the Japanese, but it is a morbidly fascinating story told with heartfelt emotion that solidly engages the audience.
There was so much to take in, so much human tragedy that I would probably see this film again in order to view it without the shock. It’s one of those films that make you feel lucky to live where we live and live when we live.