A couple of casting surprises turn up, probably to increase interest in the film outside of China. Adrien Brody plays Time reporter Theodore H. White, who investigates the Chinese government’s handling of the famine (in short, they turn a blind eye towards it). White makes the shocking claim to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek (Chen Daoming) that the refugees have resorted to cannibalism. As evidence, he offers photos of dogs eating human bodies. I’m not sure how that supports his claim, but Kai-shek seeks to repress the photos nonetheless. Back to 1942 is grim, to be sure, but never quite as grim as all that (though we do see a pet cat get skinned and boiled for soup).
A religious subtext is part of the film’s first half, but largely ignored as it moves forward. The other American actor to appear is Tim Robbins, making a somewhat awkward cameo as Father Megan. This priest reinforces the importance of faith amidst the horrors of war, but mainly I think the producers simply wanted another appearance by a big name actor. A few other mentions are made of maintaining faith in God, but this line of thinking peters eventually peters out as the scope of Back to the 1942 expands far beyond its reach.
This movie wants to be a personal drama about the struggles of Master Fan (Zhang Guoli), a formerly well-to-do businessman, and his family as they try to survive with families once farther down the class ladder. It also wants to be an action-oriented war film and a political conspiracy thriller. Where it excels is in the harrowing aerial attack scenes. Unfortunately, the 151-minute running time is unwieldy. For students of the era, the film might hold a bit of interest but the lack of focus limits its appeal for general viewing.
Well Go USA’s transfer offers a solid presentation of Lü Yue’s 35mm cinematography. The live-action stuff especially looks pretty sharp. The idea seemed to be to capture the look of Saving Private Ryan, with a seriously muted color palette. Sometimes black levels seem a bit shallow, but other than that this is nearly on par with major studio releases.
Even more impressive is the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix. Though I question its taste, Zhao Jiping’s score swells at the appropriate times, filling out the front channels. It’s the attack scenes that, predictably, spring to life. Bomb explosions pack a punch, but subtler sounds abound during these action sequences as well. Great detail obviously went into mixing these showcase scenes, with some good directional effects as the enemy planes zoom by overhead.
Anyone looking for further insight will be disappointed, as a theatrical trailer is the sole extra included for Back to 1942.