The Film Back to 1942
The Film Back to 1942 —From Investigative Reporting to the Absurd
by ZHANG Yongfeng
Front. Lit. Stud. China 2013, 7(3): 511–524；DOI 10.3868/s010-002-013-0032-6
Back to 1942, directed by Feng Xiaogang and scripted by Liu Zhenyun, has been a box-office success and drawn rave reviews from the media. On December 9, 2012, a forum on the film was organized at the Institute of Film, Television and Theatre of Peking University where it won enthusiastic plaudits from the experts. This seems to show that the film has been both a commercial and critical success. So what kind of a film is it?
The movie is an adaptation of the 1993 novel Remembering 1942, written by Liu Zhenyun. In the year of 1942, a huge famine ravaged the province of Henan, causing three million people to starve to death. The novel takes the form of an investigation into the disaster to reconstitute the history of those terrible times. The text is a combination of interviews with survivors, excerpts from historical records and a narrator commentary, hence its classification as “investigative literature” and not fiction. The author’s intention is to get closer to the historical truth by supplementing “official reports” with the “oral recollections” of ordinary survivors. The narrator commentary tries to reveal the historical reality of public apathy towards the disaster that has been “forgotten,” as well as the fact that the refugees and their plight weighed very little in the political considerations of Chiang Kai-shek at the time. However, in spite of this combined structure, the narrator neither highlights the role of the people to eventually “control their fate,” nor does he criticize the reactionary government’s total disregard for the suffering of the victims. On the contrary, it is these very concepts that become the objects of his irony. This attitude towards the past is linked to the rejection in the 1990s of how revolutionary history has been reported. In other words, the narrator has cast aside a revolutionary historical outlook, but has yet to form a clear one of his own. The result is a messy patchwork of pieces from the past, all treated with the narrator’s “black humor.” In this way, the suffering of the refugees becomes utterly meaningless, and the novel shifts from investigative reporting into the absurd. The film too has pretty much followed this same logic and view of history.
In the process of turning the novel’s written representations into visual ones, the film has first eliminated the narrator with his inquiries and interviews. Excerpts from them and the historical record have been adapted and rearranged into the scenario, and a great deal of dramatic plot twists, details, and scenes have been added. However, this has not done away with the original fragmented narration. Five main storylines can be identified: the exodus of refugees as personified in the family of Old Master and his tenant farmers Shuanzhu and Xialu; Chiang Kai-shek’s attitude towards the famine; the American reporter Theodore Harold White interviews and news reports; the attitude of foreign missionaries and Chinese converts, and the hypocrisy and ineffectiveness of the church; the ferocious bombing of the refugees by the Japanese invaders and their deceitful famine relief. These five storylines alternate back and forth in vivid visual fragments, pieced together in long or short sequences, but without ever becoming a complete structured historical account.
This distinctive form of narration is based on two features. First, it adopts the tactic of all “catastrophe movies” of creating sensational and shocking effects, particularly the graphic and gory scenes of killings and bombings. These are purely to grab the audience and ensure ticket sales, without any consideration of whether or not they are necessary for overall plot development. Second, the film lacks a historical viewpoint and logic, so the five storylines never come together to present a conclusion to the disaster and a prospect for the future, but remain separate and scattered to the end.
It is a fact that the use of sensational scenes purely to grip audiences is a common problem in today’s “blockbusters,” just one of the consequences of commercial concerns overriding narrative ones. However, another related consequence is that specific scenes are arranged solely to fit with the sensational effects, and the more the film tries to avoid the problem the more obvious it becomes.
Precisely to create a gripping beginning, the film starts the story with the incident of Old Master’s home being raided by starving peasants. The original novel cites very brief accounts from the interviews, but this becomes a major action scene in the film: The brutal killing drenches the courtyard in blood, the whole place is consumed by fire and after these “stirring” shots, the Old Master and his family become the personification of the fleeing refugees, and the main characters of the movie. In fact, it makes very little sense for them to “escape being robbed” by hiding themselves amongst the refugees, because there is an even greater possibility of their being stripped of everything, and it certainly does not make sense for them to “represent” these people. However, since their home was already the scene of such violence, there is nothing for it but to let Old Master continue as the main character of the story.
These plot arrangements are also bound up with the film’s fuzzy view of history. Both the novel and the movie no longer identify with a revolutionary interpretation of historical events, instead they claim that, in the face of famine, landlords and the poor are identical. At the beginning, the scenes are shot from Old Master’s perspective as he faces starving peasants violently raiding his grain stores. He manages the situation badly, and the result is his home is destroyed and his son is killed. This instantly wins him the sympathy of the audience, just as the plight of the refugees does. In fact, the director knows very well that landlords and poor peasants were very different economically, and while the movie does make a point of showing that Old Master and his family join the stream of refugees to avoid being robbed not to escape famine, and also that his tenant farmers Xialu and Huazhi hate him, in the end, as the last of his money and food are pilfered by marauding soldiers, the audience is drawn into feeling the same kind of sympathy for him as for all the wretched starving people. Such an evening out is built on two views of history. One is the abstract concept of human nature. Just as the advance trailer says, “Director Feng interprets history from the perspective of ‘the human being’.” In this case, this means man’s basic instinct for survival, his inability to withstand hunger, but in no way takes into account either his social or class background. The other view is the effect of a national war, that is, when a nation is at war the class contradictions that underpin the terrible famine can be disregarded. What’s more, this war even provides more reasons for scenes of mayhem. The original novel only cursorily mentioned the deceit of Japanese disaster relief, and did not describe their ferocious bombing of the refugees. The movie, however, goes to great lengths to show the carnage caused by the attacks. Once again, these graphic scenes become the shapers of the historical narrative. To convey a sense of factuality, the movie at the beginning inserts Chiang Kai-shek’s 1942 New Year’s speech on the political situation. This lays the ground for later examining the link between Chiang’s political calculations and the fate of the refugees, and also to heighten the realism of the subsequent scenes of war and disaster. Such a plot arrangement once again shows an attempt to create some kind of connection between the actual story and the catastrophe visuals.
The film follows the novel’s viewpoint and plot on the issue of Chiang Kai-shek’s attitude towards the famine, and the role of the refugees in his political calculations. There is a sequence where Li Peiji, Governor of Henan province, goes to Chongqing to see Chiang, but when he realizes that international political events are more important to Chiang and his ambitions than the famine in Henan, Li does not even dare state the reason for his visit. As mentioned above, this portrayal of Chiang’s lack of interest in disaster relief is not to expose the reactionary nature of his regime, nor to show his total disregard for the plight of the people, but only to point out that he made political miscalculations. At the very end of the movie, a subtitle states that Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan, implying that the defeat of his regime was linked to the political mistakes he made. However, such a feeble comment in no way explains how the two are actually connected.
While it is true that the film does show that political miscalculations made things worse for the refugees and that the requisitioning of grain for the army, official corruption and Japanese bombing pushed them to desperation, the scenes, however, serve only to highlight the sheer absurdity of their existence as, hopeless and powerless, they are relentlessly tossed about by history and fate. Such a portrayal completely ignores the force buried in their basic instinct to survive. The novel cites historical accounts of the deceitful Japanese disaster relief that actually succeeded in getting the refugees to follow the Japanese army and disarm some 50,000 Chinese soldiers. Ironically, this demonstrates the strength of desperate people, and how it can turn into blind action if there is no proper political direction and guidance. In fact it is this power of the refugees and the general population combining into class struggle that led to the final downfall of Chiang Kai-shek’s regime, yet in the film this is precisely the crucial missing link between Chiang’s political calculations and his defeat. Historical records show that the Communist administration in the base areas was able to organize very effective disaster relief, yet both the novel and the film ignore these facts, revealing the blind spots in the writer’s and director’s vision and view of history.
With such an ambiguous perspective based on abstract “human nature,” the film is unable to either recreate historical reality or to portray the forces shaping it. The misfortunes of the refugees can only be seen as hopelessly without meaning, and the film’s tone goes from investigative reporting to the absurd. By the end, all the members of Old Master’s family are dead except the daughter, and he turns back against the fleeing crowds to go home. On the way, he meets a little girl who has lost her parents. He takes her under his wing as her “Grandpa,” and hand in hand, they head for home through a scene of blossoming peach trees. Such a heartwarming “human” ending might have been constructed to get through the censors, or maybe to win the hearts of believers in “human nature,” or maybe just to calm the shattered nerves of the audience still shocked by the scenes of gore and violence. However, such a conclusion does not bring together the disparate storylines, and does not present a historical conclusion to the famine. “Human nature” in an absurd history only makes history more absurd.
The media claims that the film has recreated historical truth, and Feng Xiaogang himself says that it is a “mirror reflecting the spirit of the nation.” The experts praise it as a “coming-of-age gift of the Chinese spirit.” However, apart from purely commercial and promotional interests, such over-statements have really no meaning at all.
 Translated by Shi Xiaojing.