In China, the Subversiveness of Historical Films

In "Back to 1942," a Chinese director takes aim at the contemporary Communist Party.

A scene from the film. (Tea Leaf Nation)

When the state-commissioned film The Beginning of a Great Revival was listed on social network site Douban in 2010, many people rushed to rate the film with one star out of five even though it had not even premiered. An alternative and more accurate translation of the film's name is The Great Founding of the Party. This film depicts Chinese political activists from the incipient Xinhai Revolution in Wuhan to the first National Congress of the Communist Party of China in Shanghai. An all-star cast participated in the making of this film, even actors from outside of Mainland China, such as John Woo, Andy Lau, Chow Yun-fat, Bingbing Fan, and Taiwanese-American Leehom Wang. Douban, known for its community of highbrow, urban users, is heavily scrutinized by Chinese censors. Around June 2011, Douban and, China's version of IMDB, banned all reviews and ratings of this film .

The ban on online discussion reflected the government's hope that audiences accept The Beginning of a Revival's endorsement of the ruling Communist Party. Subsequent state-commissioned films, such as The Founding of a Republic, which accounts for the Communist Party's post-1945 civil war with the Kuomintang, have not received the same kind of special protection from censors on film rating sites. These films have attracted online criticism, and not just because of bad acting and plots that parade unmemorable characters. Web users have accused these films of spreading blatant propaganda and appropriating history.

Many viewers, including this author, have become skeptical toward subsequent blockbuster films with grandiose historical themes released in Mainland China, even when those films were privately commissioned. Director Zhang Yimou's 2011 dud The Flowers of War, which stars Christian Bale and shows Nanjing girls surviving Japanese occupation in a cathedral, instilled textbook nationalism through a forced and sexist narrative. Director Feng Xiaogang's Aftershock, which depicts a family torn apart after the Tangshan Earthquake, conveniently neglects how the government classified the death toll as a "state secret" for many years. In reenacting history through rose-tinted glasses, directors Zhang and Feng seemed to have agendas that aligned with those of the state. How else would these films have passed the censors and been screened for so many naïve audiences?

But something different is at work in Feng Xiaogang 2012's film, Back to 1942. The 146-minute ordeal focuses intensely on the Job-like figure of Master Fan, who seemingly endures every possible tragedy. Unlike Job, Fan does not believe in God. "Heretic" Fan's first few plights become sermon examples for a persistent Catholic missionary named Xi'man. Standing amid the debris of Master Fan's house, Xi'man tells the poor villagers, "Landlord Fan never had faith in God. He was warned and still he was refused. And now, having lost the protection of the Lord ... his son died, his house was burnt to the ground."

Yet Xi'man -- a rare portrayal of a Chinese Christian -- eventually wavers in faith and asks why God created evils such as war and famine. In contrast, Fan keeps an unwavering belief in family relationships.

The film contains many allusions to China's Great Famine of 1959-1961, a relatively sensitive historical subject. Many artists in China have used allusion to express a meaning within a meaning, and Feng liberally avails himself of the tool here. The outer bounds of Great Famine discourse have already been somewhat demarcated; former Xinhua journalist Yang Jisheng's monograph Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962 remains banned in China.

The film 1942, which covers another, earlier famine, thus proceeds with a subtle analogy to the Communist Party's later failures. The film not only criticizes the Nationalist government's inadequacy -- a sure-fire winner with Communist authorities -- but also takes more subtle aim at the hypocrisy found in most top-down political organizations. While both famines had their natural causes, such as the locusts for the 1942 famine and the droughts and floods for the 1960s famine, the political factors carried much more weight. Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong both prioritized saving face on the international stage, rather than acknowledging famines at home.

In 1942, Generalissimo Chiang expresses more concern for Gandhi's hunger strike than the hunger of his own people. Similarly, Mao Zedong has been criticized for collecting grain from already-hungry farmers and using the proceeds to repay Soviet debt. In 1942, Li Peiji, then-provincial leader of Henan Province, attempted to deliver a report to Chiang on the famine crisis in his jurisdiction. Chiang was preoccupied with war matters; seeing that Chiang had to attend to ostensibly more important events, Li decided to omit the report. Similarly, Communist Party officials, in fear of the "Rightist" label, also protected their jobs and reputations by hiding hunger reports from the higher ranks. The quotas for war rations of the Nationalist Party's 1940s and the quotas for grain produce during the Communist Party's collectivization period both created a huge burden for farmers.

In another notable scene in 1942, uniformed police stop refugees, who have trekked for weeks, from entering the city of Luo Yang, Henan. The patriarch and central character Master Fan is flabbergasted at the absurdity of the blockade. But Communist Party officials issued similar orders during the 1959-61 famine and prohibited farmers from entering the cities. The film shows how a slight change in state politics can easily alter the fate of millions.

Bloggers like Wang Sixiang have also noted other similarities:

There was once a famine that had 10 times the death toll than the one in 1942; it was also the most tragic and despicable famine in the history of humankind. Henan Province also suffered the most in that famine. Some people don't think that we should be too critical towards Feng Xiaogang; perhaps he was trying to insinuate something.

Allusion and insinuation, of course, are not enough. By design, they are more likely to reach those audience members already disposed to spot them. The more naïve audiences, meanwhile, remain just that. This March, current Henan Party Secretary Lu Zhangong invoked Back to 1942 to thank Socialist policies as well as Reform and Opening, the name given to China's economic liberalization. Lu only referred to the famine under "Old China," while consciously skipping over the one that happened under the Communist Party's "New China." Until the day that director Feng has a chance to talk about the later famine -- and perhaps even make a film about it -- we may never know Feng's true intentions.

This post also appears at Tea Leaf Nation, an Atlantic partner site.