Back to 1942 (a J!-ENT Blu-ray Disc Review)

May 12, 2013 by  


“Back to 1942” is a powerful, thought-provoking film that opens your eyes to many factors of how millions of people in Henan, China suffered and possibly millions have died back in 1942 due to the great famine and also poor decision made by the government.  “Back to 1942” is an epic film from filmmaker Feng Xiaogang that is recommended on Blu-ray!

Images courtesy of © 2012 Huayi Brothers Media Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

TITLE: Back to 1942 (Yi jiu si er)


DURATION: 151 Minutes

BLU-RAY DISC INFORMATION: 1080p High Definition, 16:9 widescreen, Mandarin/English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, Subtitles: English, Chinese

COMPANY: Well Go USA Entertainment

RATED: Not Rated

Release Date: May 14, 2013

Directed by Xiaogang Feng

Based on the novel by Zhenyun Liu

Produced by Sanping Han, Peter Lam, Guangquan Liu, Dai Song, Yiyang Wang, Zhongjun Wang, Albert Yeung

Co-Producer: Stephen Lamm, Shirley Lau, Chaoyang Li, Wanli Liu, Zhengwei Ni, Yu Zhang

Co-Executive Producer: Chen’an, Chengsheng Gao, Lorraine Ho, Xiang Huang, Albert Lee, Yue Ren, Wenhong Yang, Xia Yue, Danjun Zhang, Huali Zhang, Qiang Zhang, Duojia Zhao, Hai Cheng Zhao, Hongmei Zhao

Music by Jiping Zhao

Cinematography by Yue Lu

Costume Design by Timmy Yip


Tim Robbins as Father

Adrien Brody as Theodore Harold White

Daoming Chen as Chiang Kai-shek

Fan Xu as Hua Zhi

Hanyu Zhang as An Ximan

Alec Su as T.V. Soong

Guoli Zhang as Fan Dianyuan

Xuejian Li as Li Peiji

Mo Zhang as Shuan Zhu

Ziwen Wang as Xing Xing

Yihong Duan as Chen Bulei

Yuanzheng Feng as Xia Lu

Zhong Lu as Zhang Fang’s Motehr

Guoqiang Zhang as Guo Jiquao

Shaohau Zang as Xia Lu Nang

The Henan province disaster was one of the darkest moments in 20th-century Chinese history a humanitarian crisis first sparked by drought, then compounded by a combination of windstorms, government corruption, and a war with Japan. In the midst of the devastation, an American journalist (Adrian Brody) searches for answers, and slowly comes to understand that there may be a greater connection between these tragedies and his political theories than he once thought. Starring Brody, Zhang Guoli, and Tim Robbins, this tragic retelling of events is based on Liu Zhengyun’s bestselling novel Remembering 1942. Director Feng Xiaogang follows up his blockbuster real-life disaster movie AFTERSHOCK with this unflinching portrayal of one of the darkest times in China’s WWII history, resulting in a loss of at least three million people.

Throughout history, many countries have suffered from famines.  Famines have destroyed cities, led to internal collapses of civilization, diseases/plagues and has led to unrest.

While one can read of great famines in Ireland, the United States, Ethiopia, India and Russia.  And for China, the country has suffered many centuries of famine, where millions upon millions have died.

But during World War II, because of Japanese occupation and politics, the famine that took place in Henan, China was downplayed and even to the point of not existing, until a Time magazine journalist named Theodore H. White, who was stationed in Chungking, China’s wartime capital, was able to see and document the refugees (who were affected by the famine) and yet were being killed by the Japanese during bombing raids and turned back by their own government who did not have a solution to feed millions of people, nor to have millions stay in their city.

Unfortunately, the truth was censored by the Nationalist government of China at the time and even his editors rewrote his stories at Time Magazine.  So, Theodore White went on to write his account of what he saw in China along with Annalee Jacoby, in the book “Thunder Out if China”.

For filmmaker Feng Xiaogang, it has been a challenge for him to get the novel of Zhenyu Liu, based on the famine in the Henan province to be made into a film.  After several attempts, in 2010, “Back to 1942” would eventually receive a film adaptation.

Known for his films “A World Without Thieves”, “If You Are the One”, “Cell Phone”, “The Banquet” and becoming one of China’s most successful filmmakers.  “Back to 1942” would eventually win the A.I.C. Award for “Best cinematography” and the “Golden Butterfly Award” during its premiere at the International Rome Film Festival and “Best Film of Mainland and Taiwan” at the 32nd Hong Kong Film Awards.

And now “Back to 1942” will be released on Blu-ray courtesy of Well Go USA Entertainment.

The film is set in Henan in 1942 as Japanese occupation was taking place in China.  Meanwhile, one of the wealthiest warlords in Henan, Master Fan (portrayed by Zhang Guoli) is trying to keep his family and village fed but truthfully, he has been greedy and keeping his food hidden.  But one day, a large group of bandits come to ask for Fan to feed them as they are starving.

Master Fan doesn’t want his family or villagers getting killed in a war with the bandits but has one of his men, go to warn the troops that bandits are in his village.

So, as everyone including the bandits are being fed, the man he sends to contact the troops comes back with bad news that the Japanese have closed off the border and he wasn’t able to contact the troops.  But since the man said it so loud, the bandits were able to hear about Fan’s plan and a war erupts within the village and bandits, villagers and also a son of Master Fan is killed.  Unfortunate, his village is pillaged and also destroyed in the fire that came after the battle.

With no home to live, everyone in the village joins refugees who are searching for food and shelter.   Master Fan along with his wife, his pregnant daughter-in-law Li Peiji (portrayed by Xuejian Li), his youngest daughter Lingdang (portrayed by Yao Jingyi), a family worker named Shuan Zhu (portrayed by Mo Zhang) and others travel along with the refugees, thinking that he can find shelter because he has money and he has grain hidden in his little wooden truck.

But tragedy hits the refugees as Japanese bombers start opening fire and bombing the refugees, who were walking with soldiers.  And in the process, NRA soldiers end up stealing Fan’s money and food.  And now, he and his family are no different from the refugees.

Meanwhile, we see on Chinese priest named An Ximan (portrayed by Hanyu Zhang) who had seen the devastation of war go back to Father Megan (portrayed by Tim Robbins) and question why would God allow terrible things happen to the Chinese people and the father responds that it’s not God but the devil.

A Time Magazine foreign journalist named Theodore Harold White (portrayed by Adrien Brody) has went to take pictures of the refugees and how badly malnourished many of them are and are in desperately need of food.  He knows that the Chinese Nationalist Government must know about it, as he is starting to see cannibalism and dogs feeding from the dead.

While Theodor Harold White has taken photos of what he had seen, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek (portrayed by Daoming Chen) is more concerned of public perception and his leadership.  Despite seeing the photos taken by White, he tries to have White’s work censored.  Knowing that feeding the refugees is a lost battle, he feels that it’s probably best to let the Japanese deal with them.

As Henan politician Li Peiji (portrayed by Li Xuejian) tries to secure food for Henan and the refugees, he knows he has a difficult battle ahead of him because while he would get grain for the refugees, it’s only enough to feed them for 2-3 days and that is it.  To make matters worse, the business people, soldiers, local officials and the police start fighting and arguing of who gets more food over the other and no one can agree.  And for Li Peiji, he has seen how people have become because of the war and the famine.  But to make matters worse, he knows that the government is trying to limit the official count of people dying at Henan to over a thousand, while the truth is that 3 million have died of starvation.

As for the Japanese, they see the refugees as a way to use them to fight against their government.  If they kept them fed, they would use Chinese to fight alongside with them.

As for Master Fan, over a hundred miles of walking, once they get to their destination, they are turned away by their government who begins shooting at them.  Powerless, he begins to see as his family members start to die one by one and making decisions that he does not want to make and wonders if life is worth living at all.


“Back to 1942” is a film that was intentionally desaturated and given almost a greenish/brownish tinge at times.  While costume design and production design are top notch, and the cinematography by Yue Lu look wonderful, I think that the choice of colors of not being natural was a bit of a surprise.  Sometimes they were, sometimes they were cooler, sometimes they were warmer but for the most part, I assume this was Lu and filmmaker Feng Xiaogang’s intention.


“Back to 1942” is presented in Mandarin/English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1.  Mandarin being the primary language spoken, while Tim Robbins and Adrien Brody’s scenes are in English.  There is good use of surround usage during the more wartime scenes.  From the Japanese attacks on the refugees to the attacks on Chinese cities, there is good use of the surround channels and LFE during those scenes.  But the film is primarily dialogue driven and sometimes allows for use of crowd ambiance.

Subtitles are in English and Chinese.


“Back to 1942” comes with a theatrical trailer.


“Back to 1942” comes with a slipcover.

“Back to 1942” is a thought-provoking film and also a war film that many filmmakers have not even tried to pursue.

In the past few years, we have seen films that dealt with Japanese occupation and the atrocities that took place, especially in Nanjing or other areas of China such as the film “City of Life and Death” and “The Children of Huang-Shi” but having taken a Chinese history class and have watched countless historical documentaries of famine that have destroyed civilizations throughout our history, “Back to 1942” was the first film that exposed me to the famine of Henan.

China is a country that has suffered from famine for centuries, while “The Great Chinese Famine” (1958-1961) were widely reported in the press, while journalist Theodore H. White tried his best to get the Chinese Nationalist government and his own bosses to report on the starving refugees, it was not widely reported and if anything, the government downplayed the death toll as seen in the film to around over a thousand people dying, while the truth is that 300 million may have died.  And unfortunately because it was downplayed, the exact figures were not ever recorded.

Why would this happen?

Journalist Theodore H. White garnered attention with what he wrote from his own personal first-person account, “Famine and flood are China’s sorrow. From time out of mind Chinese chroniclers have recorded these recurrent disasters with beating, persistent note of doom. Always in their chronicles Chinese historians have judged the great dynasties of the past by their ability to meet and master such tragic emergencies. In the concluding years of the war against Japan such a famine ravaged the north and tested the government of Chiang Kai-shek.”

Also, the government continued their trend of taxing the poor farmers who planted their grain, getting a large percentage of it and left very little for them to survive on.  To make things worse, those who must meet the grain quota had to sell their animals, land and property to raise money to buy the grain from others.

Chinese independent newspapers tried to get the word out of what was happening in Henan, but the government closed down the newspaper.

“Back to 1942″ does show some of the horrors that White had written about.  People eating bark from trees and also leaves, dead people left on the side of the trail to be eaten by dogs.

You would think the government would respond, but White would write, ” The Chinese government failed to foresee the famine; when it came, it failed to act until too late. As early as October (1942), reports of the situation were arriving in Chungking. In November two government inspectors visited Honan, traveled the main motor roads, and returned to say the that the crisis was desperate and something must be done immediately. The Central Government dismissed the matter by appropriating $200,000,000 –paper money–for famine relief and sending a mandate to provincial authorities to remit taxes. The banks in Chungking loaded the bales of paper currency on trucks and sent a convoy bearing paper not food, to the stricken. It would have been hopeless to try to move heavy tonnage of grain from central China over the broken, mountainous communications to northern China and Honan. Yet just across the provincial border from Honan was the province of Shensi, whose grain stores were more than ample. A vigorous government would have ordered grain from Shensi into neighboring Honan immediately to avert disaster. But cracking down on Shensi in favor of Honan would have upset the delicate balance of power the government found so essential to its functioning. Grain might also have been moved to Honan from Hupeh, but the war commander in Hupeh (Hubei) would not permit it.”

Suffice to say, as the film is an adaptation of the novel by Liu Zhenyun, who also wrote the film, the one narration at the end of how he tried to interview his grandmother, a refugee who survived the ordeal, she rather not talk about it.  The fact is that millions of them were unfortunately betrayed by their own government.  By greed, by politics, be the lack of decision-making and unfortunately, the war had a lot to do with it as well.

While China has moved past their ties of Nationalism to Communism and the film does provide fodder for how a Nationalistic government betrayed their own people (and in ways, also showcases Chiang Kai Shek as a poor leader), unfortunately, the tale of “Back to 1942” can be applied in so many countries that suffered from famine and even natural disasters.

Filmmaker Feng Xiaogang is known for capturing the human emotion and spirit through disaster but also capturing intense battle sequences which are featured in this film.  This latest film was his most intense yet and possibly the first major attempt to reach out to an international audience thanks to the casting of both Tim Robbins and Adrien Brody.  While Tim Robbins’ scenes were probably not even needed in the film, Adrien Brody’s role as Theodore H. White is important as his article is what gained international attention.

As for the Blu-ray release, the film does take an interesting visual style, especially when it comes down to color use (some may not like the saturated green/earth-tone tinge).  The film also has wonderful cinematography, costume and production design and for the most part, filmmaker Feng Xiaogang was able to create a thought-provoking, important film about the famine and the betrayal and the suffering of the Chinese refugees.  The lossless audio also utilizes the surround channels when needed but dialogue is crystal clear.  It is unfortunate that for a powerful film such as “Back to 1942”, not one special feature (but a theatrical trailer) was included on the Blu-ray release.  I’m absolutely surprised by that and it is a bit disappointing.

Overall, “Back to 1942” is a powerful, thought-provoking film that opens your eyes to many factors of how millions of people in Henan, China suffered and possibly millions have died back in 1942 due to the great famine and also poor decision made by the government.  This is a film that showcases emotional suffering, death and enormous tragedy from an unfortunate time in China’s history that many people in this world may not even know about and will probably never know about as this tragedy was kept secret and not documented by the government of that time.

It’s a little lengthy, devoid of special features but yet, “Back to 1942” is an epic film from filmmaker Feng Xiaogang that is recommended on Blu-ray!

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