In 1942, a perfect storm of disaster hit the Henan province of China. Massive drought, locusts war with the Japanese and political and institutional corruption all led to a disaster of historic proportions. 30 million people, desperate and starving, left their homes and attempted to travel to the neighboring province of Shaanxi in order to escape the disaster, and ultimately, three million people ended up starving to death. The leaders of the time refused to acknowledge the scope of the disaster in order to present a good face to their allied countries and the outside world in general. It wasn’t until an American reporter who worked for Time magazine, Theodore White (Adrien Brody), traveled with the refugees for a while, taking photos of their plight, which were then sent home and published to show the world what was truly going on there, that the officials finally did something and sent food relief to the province, though it was far too late for many, and corruption prevented it from truly helping the people the way it should have, despite the best efforts of Theodore White to expose the truth, and Governor Li’s (the governor of Henan province) attempts to make those in power understand how desperate the people of Henan were. The governor was a good man, and a very honorable man who was stymied by the corruption and ignorance of those who controlled the means to help him and the people he represented.
The film itself largely follows two families who became refugees. Fan and his family, who was a landlord and ended up losing everything, and Xialu and his family, who were tennants of Fan’s. During the mass exodus of desperate refugees, many people died due to starvation, sickness, the harshness of winter, and many other causes. Bodies were left along the road, where wild dogs tore them apart for food. Over time, the people became little more than desperate animals themselves, even to the point of selling off their own family members into servitude for food. There is no happy ending here. Only loss, heartache and misery.
This film is just relentless, sad and depressing, I mean my god, we live in a world now where we’d like to believe that things like this just couldn’t happen, but this did happen. This story is based on true events, and the film itself is based on a book by Liu Zhengyun called Remembering 1942. No disaster movie you’ve ever seen will show you the bottomless depths of human misery that can exist in this world like this film does.
To be honest, I had never heard of this incident. It’s not something American children learn about in school, but to be honest, it should be, because it’s a good lesson about how governmental corruption can severely harm the people they’re supposed to be there to serve, and it’s also a great lesson about survival, the human spirit and what motivates people to keep pushing forward, no matter how desperate they become. It’s not only inspiring, but it’s also sad, because eventually people reach a breaking point where they just don’t care anymore, and morals become an inconvienience and a luxury that survival simply cannot afford.
Every possible aspect of what was happening during this time is covered in this film. The refugee crisis, the death, the loss of morals, the corruption, soldiers turning on the people and the Japanese attacks are all shown with brutal realism. You would be hard pressed to find a film that presents a human disaster of this level in a more realistic way.
I think the only actual problem with this film that comes to mind is that it was too long. The film is just over two and a half hours long, but it didn’t need to be. There are parts with a Chinese Christian monk, and later, both his and Theodore White’s visits to a monastery where Tim Robbins played the head monk that extended the film needlessly, as they really didn’t serve much purpose in the telling of the story, and Tim Robbins’ character really didn’t affect the story in any way. By removing these needless scenes, the film could have been shortened to a more reasonable running time.
That’s really my only complaint about the film. Everything else was just amazing, and despite how hard it can be to watch at times because of the misery it depicts, it really is a movie that’s worth watching. You may not want to see it more than once because it’s so unbelievably heavy, but it’s a truly amazing film, and from a film making standpoint, just an incredible achievement.
If you’d like to find out more about this film, you can check out its page on the Well Go USA website here, and if you’d like to pick up a copy for yourself, you can get the blu-ray or DVD from Amazon, or from any of the other usual outlets.