Well Go USA // 2012 // 151 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // May 14th, 2013
A time that must never be forgotten.
China is one of the fastest-growing markets for motion pictures in the world right now. That means that increasingly we're going to see China driving filmmaking trends globally, and it's already started. Films like Looper and Iron Man 3 received chunks of their funding from Chinese investors and therefore shot special scenes in-country. It looks like this model of funding will continue, but China doesn't just want to import Hollywood stories -- no, they want to tell some of their own. However, like savvy investors they know that the international market is worth tapping, so telling Chinese stories with some American actors is a new trend. We saw it in 2011 with Christian Bale's appearance in The Flowers of War, and now the trend continues with Back to 1942, another World War II tale featuring a Chinese story with American actors.
In 1942, in the middle of the second Sino-Japanese war (which was itself eventually subsumed into the larger conflict of World War II), the Henan province suffers from a drought. With all the available grain being used by General Chiang Kai-Shek (Chen Daoming) for his troops, millions of Chinese peasants are starving. American journalist Theodore White (Adrian Brody, The Pianist) attempts to both document the extent of the tragedy while also urging humanitarian aid from the Chinese government.
Telling a story of a global catastrophe is difficult, and while the Henan province famine is hardly global, it affected more people than most natural disasters. The filmmakers have to shape our sympathies, inform us of the scope of the tragedy, while hopefully not losing sight of the human element of it all. The best films in this category find a way to turn a personal, usually singular story into a larger one, connecting emotionally with a few characters before pulling back to expose the wider implications of that singular difficulty. Back to 1942 attempts to accomplish all of these goals by giving us a protagonist in Adrian Brody. Using a journalist as the protagonist lets the filmmakers impart information to the audience; we learn about the extent of the tragedy just as White does. The problem with this strategy, though, is that White is a stranger in a strange land. Even if you can overlook the somewhat problematic nature of the white-savior model at work, the move immediately disconnects viewers from the tragedy. Sure, we see some of the results thought White's eyes, but the impact is blunted by the fact that we don't witness the troubles of characters, but of stand-ins for all the millions struggling though the famine and consequences of war. The bird's-eye view is actually handled pretty well here, but without a human dimension to connect it to the story feels hollow despite the scope of the tragedy.
If you're into desaturation, Back to 1942 (Blu-ray) looks really good. The 2.39:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer is strong on details and features excellent black levels, but colors are muted to the point that the film is almost monochrome at times. That means the film lacks a certain "pop" that we expect from hi-def contemporary films, but it does mean that the film is true to the filmmakers intentions. The DTS-HD 5.1 track is even better. The dialogue (listed as Mandarin on the case) is clean and clear, while the surrounds get a use during the more war-driven moments in the film. Low end is pretty impressive during these sequences as well.
Sadly, the only extra is the film's trailer.
Back to 1942 isn't all bad. Though I'm not a huge fan of the apparent need to put a white character into a story to make it sell outside of China, Adrian Brody does a fine job as White. He's intense, fairly likeable, and sells his passion about the plight of the Chinese peasants. Tim Robbins is also another recognizable actor in the film, playing a priest who pops up for a few short moments. Overall, the film does a decent job as historical narrative. Though I didn't feel particularly affected by the tragedy emotionally though the film, it does do an excellent job of providing context for the Sino-Japanese war. Considering that most depictions of WWII in American media focus solely on the American troops in the Japanese islands, it's refreshing to see another side of the conflict and really get a sense of its global scale.
Back to 1942 provides viewers with a look at one of the more tragic effects of WWII -- a massive famine. Though the film fails to ground the tragedy in enough human characters, it's interesting as a bit of a history lesson. Back to 1942 (Blu-ray) does a fine job of presenting the film, though the lack of extras makes it hard to recommend it for more than a rental.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Well Go USA
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (Mandarin)
Running Time: 151 Minutes
Release Year: 2012
MPAA Rating: Not Rated