"Oh no, we gonna rock back to 1942, and then we'll take it higher!" For some reason, I can't help but think that when I see this film's title, or at least that was the cast until I saw that Adrien Brody is in this film, at which point I began to think about how he couldn't catch a break in 1942 as a Polish Jew, and how he's not likely to catch a break as an American journalist in the middle of a conflict between China and Japan, circa 1942. Shoot, Tim Robbins went to jail in '47, so I guess no one could catch a break in the 1940s, and according to this film, that most certainly includes the Chinese. First it's "Aftershock", a film about the Tangshan earthquake, and now we have this film about the Second Sino-Japanese War, so I guess it's safe to say that if you want a film about the Chinese not being able to catch a break, then you've got to go with Feng Xiaogang, even if you're not likely to catch all that much of a break in American cinemas (Speaking of catching a break, does anyone else want to me to take a break from saying, "catch a break"?). Well, this film didn't do too much better in China, at least compared to "Aftershock", which made ¥665 million, while this film, even with its high profile... in China (Oh yes, and I'm sure you've heard it, roundeye), makes ¥364 million on a ¥210 million budget. Man, 210 million of good ol' ching-ching of both a financial and, well, racist nature, and the effects in this film by the most intelligent nation in the world are still not that good, but then again, ¥210 million is probably "Paranormal Activity" in USD, so I'll let it go. It certainly helps that I find this film to be pretty good, though that's not to say that questionable moments in the effects aren't the only thing that challenge your investment in this film.
The mediocre, but kind of harsh-seeming consensus, at least by American critics, is that this film is an overblown mess of uneven focus that is too overambitious to be all that compelling, and quite frankly, I don't see where people get this, as I find the film to be pretty tight and thorough on the whole, and yet, I can't say that the critics are entirely inaccurate, because when the film gets overblown, it really loses much in the way of edge and focus, juggling a multitude of subplots generally well, but having moments where it loses track, and with it, focus, resulting in an inconsistency that thins out a sense of general direction for this layered epic, further hurt yet more unevenness. Pacing is yet another aspect that stands to be more inconsistent, yet that's perhaps mainly because this film has a tendency to stick with a specific level of pacing more than jar back and forth between levels, which would be could and all if this film's preferred pacing wasn't slow, inspired by excess material that also inspires the aforementioned problem of focal unevenness, as well as by excess filler that stops the progression of narrative cold and gets to become repetitious. The structural limp spells aren't too serious, or at least not on the whole, but they certainly stand, and considering the final product's near-two-and-a-half-hour runtime, it gradually becomes more and more difficult to deny their presence, especially when the limited momentum in story structure is made all the more glaring by dry spells, which are decidedly the most recurring plagues on this film, drying up atmosphere into a distancing coldness, sometimes to the point of being just downright dull. Sure, the dullness, like most everything else the critics are complaining about, isn't as bad as they say, meaning that the coldness in resonance isn't as severe as some might lead you to believe, but there's no denying that this epic stands to pick up the pace if it wishes to establish some sense of great sweep and piercing resonance, rather than spend too much time meditating upon worthy, but aimless material, and do so with only so much subtlety. If nothing else is being complained about by everyone and their dog, it's a lack of genuineness to this drama, and once again, such a problem isn't as severe as they say, but it nevertheless stands, for although this film isn't quite as manipulative as the still fairly rewarding "Aftershock", director Feng Xiaogang still has a tendency to blow little things like the playing up of Zhao Jiping unevenly used score out of proportion, and overemphasize, say, disturbing imagery and long periods of nothing but filler material of people suffering to get this film's point across, and reflect a certain overambition to the project. More often than not, the noble ambition behind this effort is fulfilled, but it really brings to light the areas in which good intentions are not done the justice they deserve, thus leaving the final product to fall short of its potential under the weight of uneven focus, pacing and subtlety. Of course, what is done right in this ambitious project is done so well that it ultimately proves to be more recognizable than the shortcomings, which are there, to be sure, but are overpowered by the final product's dramatic value, as well as its artistic value.
As surely as the problems in this film aren't quite as severe as they say, the cinematography by Lü Yue isn't as great as many perhaps reluctantly say, but make no mistake, this is a fine-looking film, as Yue delivers on a chillingly chalky color palette that is attractively unique by its own right, as well as complimentary to the grit in this harsh drama's mood, as well as on a certain tight scope that immerses you into the film's intricate production value, and by extension, the sweeping action. The action aspects to this war epic are unevenly played upon, and when warfare dramatizations do come into play, dynamicity is, as you can imagine, limited, but the action sequences in this film are still well-worth the wait, being grandly well-staged, with visual effects that are, as I jokingly stated in this article's opener, improvable, but adequately complimentary to the style of the warfare, as surely as the dramatic atmosphere proves to be complimentary to the weight of the warfare. Technically and stylistically, the final product is far from a spectacle, but it is impressive, with good looks and the occasional thrilling action set piece to punch up the effectiveness of this well-produced epic, and when it comes to the core of this drama, like I've been saying over and over again, I can't entirely subscribe my peers' lukewarm reception. Sure, storytelling is flawed, rich with focal and pacing issues that bloat the final product as kind of aimless, but there's never any denying that there is some considerable potential for an effective drama to this valuable subject matter dealing with the struggles of the oppressed during wartime, as well as the political intrigue surrounding the plots to take action for the sake of the misfortunate, especially when the meat of this important story is firmly brought to life by heights in Liu Zhenyun's script that boast human depth to characterization, which is itself brought to life by inspired performances. The critics at least agree that the acting in this film is strong, so nothing else is nailed by my fellow critical viewers of this film, it is the comments on this drama's performances, as most everyone delivers, whether it be our token, if rather ultimately unnecessary American stars Tim Robbins and Adrien Brody, - particularly Brody, who is moving and engrossingly relatable in his emotionally charged portrayal of Theodore H. White, a caring American who faces both danger and exposure to more suffering than he could have ever imagined as he enters a famished foreign land - or a hefty ensemble of Chinese talents who each give distinguished, dramatically piercing portrayals of the layered, mostly fictionalized representatives of a dark period for the people of Henan, China. The onscreen talent is most certainly there, and it's rich, as most everyone has a time to shine and move as carriers of much of the effectiveness within this important drama, but at the end of the day, in order for the film to reward, director Feng Xiaogang must deliver, and sure enough, in spite of his shortcomings as storyteller, Xiaogang meets every slow spells with an atmospherically kicked up spell, and ever manipulative moment with a genuine piece of dramatic punch that, while never really tear-jerking, compels thoroughly as a height in intrigue that wouldn't stand as firmly as it does without Xiaogang's inspiration, which in turn wouldn't stand as firmly as it does without ambition. Xiaogang clearly wants this film to succeed, and that makes the areas in which Xiaogang does not deliver hard to ignore, yet at the same time, the heart that goes into this project also emphasizes the strengths, of which there are enough to do justice to this important subject matter and make a genuinely compelling dramatic epic.
When it's all said and done, the problems in this film aren't as great as many say, but they still stand to some degree, with focal unevenness, aimless bloating, dull spots and manipulative areas - all emphasized by overambition - being considerable enough to drive the film short of what it wants to be, but not so short that the handsome cinematography, excellent production value, thrilling war sequences and compelling telling of a worthy story - anchored by well-developed writing, strong acting and heartfelt directorial storytelling - aren't able to carry "Back to 1942" as a rewarding meditation upon the terrible famine faced by the Chinese people during the Second Sino-Japanese War.
3/5 - Good