Feng Xiaogang is widely known in China for achieving a series of ‘firsts’ in the film business. His film Dream Factory (1997) was China’s first hesuipian (a ‘feel-good’ genre made for the New Year holiday). Big Shot’s Funeral (2001) was the first film with a modern-day plot to be shot in the Forbidden City. And of course, Feng was also the first Chinese filmmaker to gross more than Rmb1 billion ($160.5 million) in domestic box office receipts.
After two decades in the industry, Feng is now ready to unveil his personal ‘first’: the first ever film that he wanted to make.
“I decided on the story of Back to 1942 before I made my first movie. You can say everything I’ve been doing was to help turn that dream into reality,” Feng explains.
Back to 1942, which cost Rmb210 million to make, revolves around the true events of a devastating famine that killed more than 3 million in Henan province after the Japanese invasion of China. “This story was the untold history not found in history books that will prompt us to re-evaluate our lives,” says James Wang, president of Huayi Brothers, the film studio which produced the film. “Many of us don’t understand the meaning of physical hunger anymore, but we’re in a state of mental starvation.”
It’s not the first time Feng has tackled difficult material. His best-known work is mostly comedic, although it usually casts a critical eye on a consumer-obsessed, spiritually-bereft society. But Feng has a track record of making more serious historical films too: his most recent offering Aftershock was about the deadly Tangshan earthquake that killed 250,000 people in 1976.
Human misery features strongly in 1942, too. Such was Feng’s desire to capture the desperate exodus from Henan that the film eschews computer generated imagery for its crowd scenes, having hired more than 2,000 extras to recreate what historians call Shengming Changhe Wuzhijing (‘the river of people with no end in sight’).
Not to be outdone by fellow director Zhang Yimou, who cast Christian Bale in last year’s The Flowers Of War, Feng lured two Hollywood stars to perform in 1942. This time round, Oscar winners Tim Robbins and Adrian Brody feature: Robbins playing a Catholic priest who helps the victims of the disaster, while Brody’s character is an American journalist.
As often the case in this genre of Chinese cinema, the invading Japanese are cast as the villains of the piece. With tensions still high over disputed islands in the East China Sea, the mood may have a contemporary bite for some audiences. But Feng has sought to make a more nuanced movie. The grinding multitude of emaciated figures is only half of the awfulness of the story, says the China Daily’s film critic Raymond Zhou. The other tragedy depicted in the film is the unwillingness of fellow Chinese to offer assistance. The neighbouring province blocks the refugees from entry at gunpoint, while the national army, instead of offering assistance, imposes a grain levy on the starving population.
Not that the film is without redeeming characters. “Tim Robbins told me after he read the script that this is a story of the darkest of human impulses and the brightest of hope,” says Feng. “What I learned from it is that we are a nation of refugees that has survived numerous disasters. From this story, we can learn what we were as a nation, so that we know how to go forward.”
Together with screenwriter Liu Zhenyun, Feng took more than a decade and numerous rewrites to complete the screenplay. In the past, he’s often been considered too lightweight in both subject matter and style (for our insights on Feng’s successful If You Are the One franchise, see WiC91). But with 1942, Feng is showing that he wants to be known for more than commercial success, says Chengdu Business Daily.
So far, the international response to 1942 has been positive. It was featured in the Rome Film Festival and took home two awards. But the pressing question is when the film will be released in China. It was originally scheduled to start showing this week. But Robert Cain, author of the chinafilmbiz blog, has reported that five of China’s biggest film distributors confronted cinemas in mid-November, demanding an increase in their shares of box office revenue from 43% to 45%. China Film Group, Huayi Brothers (producer of Back to 1942), Bona Film Group, Stellar Mega Films and Enlight Pictures told the theatre operators that they will withhold the releases of their upcoming movies into December, traditionally a major month for China’s box office, unless they get their way.
The row, however, appears to have been resolved. To Feng’s relief, 1942 started showing nationwide on Thursday.
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