Back to 1942

On Chinese cyberspace, people have been raving about Feng Xiaogang’s new movie “1942” (English title was “Back to 1942”).  I was envious of people in China who could watch this in the large screen and bitterly resenting the fact that we had to wait it comes out on bittorren land, and watch it in our small screen at home.

Then i accidentally saw it is currently playing in a Cinemark theatre in the bay area! Afraid it would be moved off the theatre’s play list soon, we rushed to watch it this afternoon.

It is one of the best movies come out of P. R. China in the last few years. A very well told story, extremely moving without being overly sentimentalized.  Good staging, custom design, and epic style cinematography over the rugged landscape of northern He Nan province. It’s a kind of “Schindler’s List“ for Chinese people.

I was surprised by how diverse the elements involved in the story was: the peasant, the corrupted officials (from army to civilian, from the governor circle to the local township), the grand display of Nationalist central government in Chongqing, the Japanese (again from the strategist to the foot soldier), the American Journalist from Time Magazine, the Priest (One American, One Chinese), and the Nationalist armies(again from the foot soldier to the top generals). Everyone has its place and role, they each help the story to unfold. Adding their own shade to further the misery of the refugee fleeing from the famine.

ZM told me of 1942 before its release. He said it really should have been called 1962. The people who made the movie couldn’t make one about the great famine in 1962 under the communist rule, so they chose the famine 20 years earlier under nationalist rule. Surprisingly, the movie was allowed to show in China without getting killed by the propaganda department.

3 Million people died in the 1942 famine, ten times of that died in 1962.

On our way back to the city, i asked ZM, “If communist party had been in power during the japanese war, do you think they will do the same by retreating from He Nan, so they could hand off the starving He Nan people to Japanese?”  ZM was quiet for a long while. First i thought maybe he was thinking of an answer. Later i realized he was just dumbfounded. He couldn’t believe i would ask such a naive question and he was trying to figure out whether i was joking. Finally he said, “they would only do worse. and they had. Just look at 1962.”

I knew he was right. But somehow i thought a government tends to be much worse during a civil war than when it was fighting a foreign power. Somehow the brainwash i have received since i was young in mainland china still left its mark. I somehow still think communist party would care about its image more than the nationalist and they won’t dare to be found out they have abandoned their own starving people. Maybe that fear will hold them to do the right thing.

On the other hand, the movie portrayed Chiang Kai Shek as someone who was extremely calculating and shrewd.  Then i realized that being calculating and shrewd is the easy part for a politician. The hard part is for people in power to have a principle in mind, to try to do the right thing even when it doesn’t agree with the calculation and common sense politics.  From that sense, communist party is even more reckless and has less (zero) sense of morality than the nationalists. They couldn’t care less about right and wrong.

They learned from all the Nationalist Party’s mistakes and made sure no one could interfere with their famine in 1962. There was no journalist(foreign or native) to create troublesome investigation report.  Communist party didn’t even allow people to flee the famine. Instead they were forced to die locked in their barren homeland.

In the movie 1942, the small band of refugees were given some kind of hope throughout of the movie, even at the end, there was a flickr of hope remain.  In 1962, there would be none. We’ve all read Yu Hua’s novel depicting that time “To Live”.

Not sure i would ever want to watch a movie about 1962 if anyone ever managed to make it.

I realized that my rant made this movie seemed really depressing. But in fact i was surprised at how restraint the movie has been. It didn’t really try to sensationalize the tragedy. It just tried to tell a story, and it did, very well. The diverse elements of the story makes it an interesting one. It is a good movie.

Some reference material i dug up tonight about the events depicted in the movie:

– Theodore White’s chapter on “Honan Famine” in his book “Thunder out of China”
Theodore H. White and Journalism as Illusion
Photos accompanied Theodore White’s March 1943 TIme article on Honan Famine.

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