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September 2, 2013

Movie Review: Back to 1942 (aka Yi jiu si er, 2012)

Directed by Xiaogang Feng

Movie Review by Greg Goodsell

With the world officially plunged into war back the winter of 1942, a village in the Henan province in Mainland China decides to flee the grinding famine brought on by drought. While wealthy landlord Master Fan (Zhang Guoli) has enough to feed the village and his family, bandits arrive to burn everything down to the ground. Piling up his rickshaws with personal belongings, food and his daughter, wife and daughter-in-law, Fan joins a great exodus heading west. Things get worse and worse and worse, as their fellow travelers lash out and kill for a mouthful of food …

It’s been an interesting year for film criticism. We have had the Lianne Spiderbaby debacle, with her merrily cutting and pasting the works of Internet scribes who write for love, not money, for her own personal fame and fortune. There has also been the recent controversy concerning critical warhorse Rex Reed. Said persnickety critic was seen storming out of a screening of the anthology horror film V/H/S 2 to which he wrote a scathing review. People called him out on it, saying he had no right to condemn a film he hadn’t seen all the way through.

I have a soft spot for Rex. He was one of the few mainstream movie critics who gave The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) a rave review at the time of its original release, and while his acerbic comments about various personalities have been unkind, they held an undeniable integrity. Reed could always be counted upon to declare that the emperor was wearing no clothes, in a field where others would otherwise lay down their pens –

Reed is getting on in years, and he probably stomped out of V/H/S 2 because he didn’t relish another gross-out fest by up and coming, uh, “talents.” While he makes good money doing what he does, Reed probably doesn’t want to spend his remaining days viewing shot-on-video, improvised horror skits destined to go directly to Redbox.

Which brings us to Back to 1942. There really hasn’t been enough films about the Chinese experience in regards to World War II, with only the shrill exploitative Men Behind the Sun (1988) and Black Sun: The Nan King Massacre (1994) immediately coming to mind. While they manufacture a plethora of fun gadgets today, the Japanese were at one time capable of churning out subhuman wrath on their peers – China being the most notable example. To its credit, Back to 1942 takes a highly critical look at Chinese mores at the time: Landlord Fan loads up his cart with worthless relics of ancestor worship, and the villagers around him maintain a certain traditional respect for him – until the going gets really tough. 

In one of the more harrowing scenes, Japanese air pilots’ bomb unarmed civilians along their trek on dusty mountain roads. Once the bombs hit, the Chinese villagers immediately turn on each other and scramble for their immediate neighbor’s food and supplies. Men, women and children – all fall prey to their once kindly fellow villagers.

This was the breaking point for me: Fan’s daughter bravely clutches her pet kitty cat through the ordeal, through thick and thin for hundreds of miles. We know what’s going to happen to the cat sooner and later, and we wait in dread. Finally the moment comes when we see something that is NOT chicken dropped into a boiling pot so his family can live another day.

It was here that I pulled my Rex Reed and said – I’M OUTTA HERE! Those who want to view more human suffering are welcome to Back to 1942. I think I’ll go water my flower beds --

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