Directed by Feng Xiaogang
Reviewed by Anthony Servante
I saw the horror movie sequel to The Collector, called The Collection, both of which I enjoyed. As I left the theater, I saw a long line of well-dressed Chinese cordoned by black velvet separators used at movie premieres. So, I went for it. I got in line, wearing a black hoodie. There were security and uniformed ushers, all Chinese. As more patrons lined up behind me, one of the ushers counted people in the line and then instructed the last fifty or so people in line to follow him. I understood his body language enough that I didn't need to understand his Mandarin. We were escorted to the theater showing Red Dawn. Cool. I haven't seen that yet. Then the usher left and returned with two more ushers and hundreds more patrons who immediately filled the cinema to capacity. We were told by the escort usher that they have found a copy of the movie at a sister theater nearby and that it is being readied for showing in about 15 minutes. He apologized that the other theater was oversold, but while we are waiting for the movie to start, he and the other ushers would hand out free movie passes for a complimentary visit to attend a different film. When the usher reached me, I told her that my partner was in the restroom. She handed me an extra ticket. Xie xie, I said. As I listened afterward, I found that most of the audience had a friend or family member in the restroom as well. The ushers smiled and bowed a lot. They didn't care. The tickets were an apology. That is all that mattered. Minutes or so after the freebies, the movie started straight away. No turn-off your cell phones. No refreshments in the lobby. No don't talk during the movie. No trailers. The movie started, the lights went down. I heard the crowd gasp. I sensed something about the movie was going to be good.
It was not Red Dawn. It was a Chinese film called 1942. That's what the four Chinese characters read. A one, a nine, a four and a two. Yet the English subtitle read: Back to 1942. (Later I found it's based on the book Remembering 1942, because as the author Liu Zhenyun points out: Americans remember [bad times in history]; the Chinese forget). The cast titles were Chinese except for Tim Robbins and Adrien Brody (other Brody movies, The Thin Red Line & The Pianist, and now this movie all take place in 1942, as Zhenyun also points out). The movie begins with a confrontation between peasants carrying torches at night and the landlord and his hired help carrying rifles. It seems the starving "bandits" as the rich owner refers to them are starving to death and they intend to share in the plentiful food behind the wall the armed men are defending. A messenger sent to summon police returns with the news that the Japanese have invaded China. The peasants and the riflemen begin killing each other for whatever food they can carry. The next morning there is an exodus of ten million people from the Henen Province who will go west in search of food. Why west? It is a traditionally lucky path to take in dire times. Only on this trek over three million of them will die: from starvation, strafing and bombing from Japanese planes, murder, and cannibalism.
The horror the movie captured all too well, but this pic is real 1942
The refugees were starving. A pet cat that would not be left behind becomes food, and even the young girl whom the father tries to console needlessly declares, "I'm going to eat it too." Two thieves lose the mule they stole and one of the thieves tries to find the beast in the pitch black of a Henen night; he heads to a camp fire in the distance where Chinese soldiers are bayoneting the mule into size-able chunks for the huge pot of boiling water. He demands a piece of the animal only to fall into the boiling pot head-first, which instantly kills him. From days to months these people without food find themselves doing what no civilized person would do to survive. It is more humane to strangle a new-born baby girl than to watch it die of starvation.
Meanwhile, the Japanese planes just won't go away. In movie time the attacks span about fifteen to twenty minutes apart. The mass of refugees have nowhere to run or hide. They are ripped apart by high-powered bullet-fire. A tottler crying for her mother is blown in two by a nearby bomb. The visceral assault is non-stop. Your emotions are not spared. And we're not one third through the movie yet. There is much more suffering to come. But the reasons must be explored by the film-maker.
The blame is placed by the camera on the corrupt Chinese government. And the honest politicians are impotent to help. The Japanese on the ground get about fifteen minutes of blame toward the end when the Chinese pass their Henen refugee problem to their military enemy. The reporter played by Adrien Brody has been taking pictures of atrocities on the road from Hennen and has reported his findings to the highest Chinese official, who upon learning of the cannibalism, and seeing pictures of dogs eating human carcasses, worries more about how China will appear in the Time magazine article than about addressing the problems with the Hennen refugees. When 100 million tons of grain arrive, it dwindles as local government officials skim so much that nothing reaches the refugees. From horror to the horrible and back and forth the audience sways emotionally.
I was grateful that I fell into this movie. It was a great lesson in history, and after having just posted my article on History and Horror in fiction, it was quite the coincidence to follow the same subject in nonfiction. I was the first to stand and applaud the movie as the final credits began to roll. The crowd joined me with whistles and shouts of the director's name. I think I walked into an event of some magnitude. It was not a perfect movie. It was a perfect experience. Nothing like real horror to remind one what fictional horror emulates, and nothing like a good book or film to kindle that memory. It made The Collection look like a G-rated film.
Go see 1942. Let's show the Chinese how to remember. They already know how to forget.