FEAR AND FAMINE
✩✩ URING the first decade of the Asian Century, cinema attendances in China expanded massively due to the construction of thousands of cinemas across the country. Although China imposes a quota system on the import and exhibition of foreign films, co-productions, such as the recent Australia-Singapore-China co-production Bait, are exempt, and in consequence that film was screened widely across the country and its boxoffice takings were enormous. It will probably end up earning more money in China than it will from the rest of the world, including Australia.
Chinese productions that not so many years ago were clumsy and unedifying pieces of propaganda blossomed in the 1980s with the arrival on the scene of important and innovative new directors such as Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou, and today Chinese cinema is rivalling India and the US as the most important national industry in terms of quantity, if not always quality.
International film festivals occasionally screen the work of dissident film directors whose films are banned in their own country and are smuggled out (easy to do these days using digital processes) but mainstream Chinese films are increasingly becoming available to Western audiences.
Feng Xiaogang is one of the country’s most prominent mainstream directors. Born in Beijing in 1958, he made his first film, Gone Forever My Love, in 1994 and achieved international prominence 10 years later with A World Without Thieves, a lavish suspense film set mainly on a train speeding through the north of the country. This was followed by the sumptuous The Banquet (2006) and the award-winning Aftershock (2010), a film about the effect on the civilian population of a massive earthquake, which was filmed on a grand scale.
Feng’s latest, which has opened in a few cinemas in Australia concurrent with its Chinese release, is Back to 1942, which also depicts the effect of natural disaster on ordinary people, though in this case the drought and famine that devastated China’s Henan province in 1942-43 was exacerbated by the Japanese invasion and, the film proposes, the corruption and incompetence of the ruling Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party, under Chiang Kai-shek, played imposingly in the film by Chen Daoming.
The major part of this almost 21/ hour epic deals with two families who are forced to leave their homes and travel, on the brink of starvation, across the barren landscape, often