A scene from "Back to 1942." (China Lion Entertainment )
During the Henan famine 'of 1942-44, 10 million people fled the Chinese province and more than 3 million died, yet the disaster remains a lesser-known chapter of modern history.
Using a broad, multi-character canvas, the handsomely shot drama "Back to 1942" depicts how the combination of war and a pathological level of government denial prolonged the drought-parched region's suffering.
Director Feng Xiaogang captures the epic scale of the exodus as well as the often-harrowing details, yet emotional connection proves more elusive.
An actor turned director of big-budget features ("Aftershock"), Feng intercuts the story of the refugees' months-long march with scenes concerning Chinese bureaucrats and a couple of Western observers.
On the latter front, the involvement of Adrien Brody and Tim Robbins seems designed to broaden the movie's international reach, but the film could easily dispense with their supporting roles, especially Robbins' brief turn as a priest whose accent wobbles between Irish and Italian-ish.
As American journalist Theodore White, Brody serves more as narrative device than fully fleshed character. White's relentless efforts to get officials to acknowledge the devastation in Henan eventually lead him to the Generalissimo himself, Chiang Kai-shek (nuanced work by Chen Daoming).
On the road out of Henan, where brides are sold for a few pints of millet and Japanese planes strafe the throng, arrogant landowner Fan (Zhang Guoli) is soon on the same vulnerable footing as that of his servant (Zhang Mo).
Feng conveys the shattering of class distinctions when everyone is starving and achieves impressive set pieces, all without quite orchestrating the story's many parts into a dramatic whole.
"Back to 1942." No MPAA rating; in English and Mandarin with English and Traditional Chinese subtitles. Running time: 2 hours, 29 minutes. At the AMC Atlantic Times Square 14, Monterey Park; AMC Puente Hills 20, Rowland Heights; Cinemark Century Stadium 25 & XD, Orange.