BACK TO 1942 (Feng Xiaogang). 146 minutes. Subtitled. Opens Friday (November 2). See listing. Rating: NN
Hard to believe an epic designed to pull your heartstrings could be this leaden. Back To 1942 sheds light on a little-known tragic piece of Chinese history but sinks under the weight of its good intentions.
After following up his earthquake pic, Aftershock, with a frothy romantic comedy, director Feng Xiaogang is back in disaster mode, tracking the devastating famine that took the lives of 3 million people in the province of Henan during the Second World War.
Xu Fan plays the landlord Hua Zhi, forced to flee with the common people who are soon so dehumanized by starvation that they're eating pets and selling their female children for a few quarts of millet. Meanwhile, the Japanese are set to invade, and the Chinese army is hoarding all the food so the soldiers can fight the good fight.
Somewhere in there, Feng wants to comment on government corruption, but that takes second place to extended sequences of unremitting misery and carnage once the Japanese start bombing roads streaming with refugees.
Also along for the ride are Adrien Brody as Time reporter Theodore White and Tim Robbins, ludicrous as an Irish priest. Presumably they're there to attract Western audiences.
But when a movie has no emotional arc, or even a story, for that matter, that's unlikely to happen.